Friday, 22 November 2013

The JFK Assassination's Impact on American TV & Film

It was fifty years ago today, on 22 November 1963, that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The event shocked the nation and sent it into an extended period of grief. It is well known that the three American broadcast networks of the time (NBC, CBS, and ABC) pre-empted their regularly scheduled programming for four straight days of news coverage. What is less well known is the immediate impact President Kennedy's death had on American entertainment television shows and film. Dialogue would be changed to remove anything that could possibly be considered offensive in the weeks following the assassination. Episodes that could be considered offensive scheduled to air in the weeks following the assassination were delayed, as was the release of at least two major motion pictures. Indeed, the episode of one well-known television show would not be seen until the series' reruns went into syndication, while an episode of a lesser known television show would never, ever be seen. 

Today most Americans are familiar with the practice of the American broadcast networks and motion picture studios altering their schedules in the wake of tragic events. In the wake of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes "Earshot" and "Graduation Day" were delayed until that summer. Following the terrorist acts of 11 September 2001 an old episode of The Simpsons featuring the World Trade Centre was pulled from syndication. The practice has continued to this day. Following the Boston Marathon bombing on 15 April 2013 ABC moved back an episode of Castle involving a bomb by a week. In 1963, however, such changes in network programming schedules and Hollywood studio release schedules were to some degree unprecedented. What is more, the rescheduling of television show episodes and even alterations in episodes and feature films following John F. Kennedy's assassination was on a scale that would not be matched until 09/11.

Indeed, the list of television shows impacted by President Kennedy's death is an impressive one. For some this simply meant editing any potentially offensive material out of episodes. Perhaps the simplest instance of this occurred with an episode of The Defenders. Its episode scheduled to air on 7 December 1963 had been entitled "The Gentle Assassin". Following President Kennedy's murder it was retitled "Climate of Evil". As it was the new title perhaps fit the episode better anyway. "Climate of Evil" dealt with a convicted embezzler accused of murdering another prison inmate. An episode of The Patty Duke Show would undergo even more extensive editing. The episode featured a dream sequence in which lead character Patty Lane is given a medal by a figure seated in a rocking chair whose face is not seen and who sounded like John F. Kennedy. In the wake of the assassination the scene was cut from the episode.

It was more often the case following the assassination of President Kennedy that episodes were entirely rescheduled rather than re-edited. This was even the case with news documentaries. CBS' documentary programme The Twentieth Century had a documentary on the assassination attempts upon Adolph Hitler scheduled in early December, but following the president's murder rescheduled the documentary to air that January.  The irregularly scheduled NBC documentary programme NBC White Paper had a documentary on the Bay of Pigs Invasion, "Cuba: The Bay of Pigs", scheduled to air in early December, but following the assassination its broadcast was rescheduled for 4 February 1964.

Of course, the vast majority of postponements and rescheduling on the part of the networks following the assassination were episodes of entertainment television programmes. Channing was a TV drama on ABC that centred on the fictional  Channing College and starred Jason Evers as Professor Joseph Howe and Henry Jones as Dean Fred Baker. Its episode scheduled for 27 November 1963, ""A Window On the War", dealt with a student who blamed a professor at  Channing for the death of one of his friends in the Vietnam War and plotted to kill the professor. Given the subject matter, the episode was delayed until 11 December 1963. An episode of the spy anthology series, Espionage (a British series airing on NBC) scheduled for that same night, 27 November 1963, was also delayed. "A Camel to Ride, a Sheep to Eat" dealt with a Catholic priest who led protests against an oppressive government. The episode was postponed until 18 December 1963.

An episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour scheduled for 28 November 1963 on NBC was also rescheduled, although the reasons for doing so seem unclear now. "The Cadaver" centred on a college student who takes a cadaver from the lab and places it in his dorm room as a practical joke on his room mate. Given that the episode in no way touches upon assassinations or even gun deaths, it seems a bit odd that the decision was made to postpone the episode. One can only assume that perhaps an episode dealing a practical joke involving a corpse was felt to be in poor taste following John F. Kennedy's death. Regardless, it was rescheduled for 17 January 1964.

This is not Todd Stiles!
While some episodes of television shows were rescheduled following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, an episode of Route 66 would not see the light of day until it aired in syndication. "I'm Here to Kill a King" was one of the many "evil twin" episodes so common on American television in the Sixties. In this case the evil twin was Paul Kades, who just happened to look exactly like one of the heroes of Route 66, Tod Stiles (both were played by Martin Milner). Unfortunately for Tod, Paul Kades was in Niagara Falls to assassinate a Middle Eastern king. Seen today it is easy to see why "I'm Here to Kill a King" was pulled from the schedule, as the episode had some uncomfortable parallels to the Kennedy assassination. The king's motorcade through Niagara Falls resembles President Kennedy's motorcade through Dallas. And at one point in the episode Paul Kades comments that he is shooting the king in the head. "I'm Here to Kill a King" was not rescheduled to air during the 1963-1964 season as other episodes of shows following the assassination were. Instead "I'm Here to Kill the King" would not see the light of day until it resurfaced in syndication after Route 66 had ended its network run.

While the Route 66 episode "I'm Here to Kill a King" would eventually see the light of day, an episode of The Joey Bishop Show would not and never will.  Episode #85 of The Joey Bishop Show guest starred John F. Kennedy impersonator Vaughn Meader (then well-known for his popular comedy album The First Family) and centred on Joey confusing Vaughn Meader's impersonation of the President for the real thing. The episode had been recorded on 13 November 1963 (nearly a week before the President's death) and scheduled by NBC to air in February. Not only was the episode pulled from the schedule, but according to an article in The Pittsburgh Press from 4 December 1963 ("Nation's Tragedy Brings Changes to Titles, Stories") it was completely erased.

Vaughn Meader
Unfortunately for Vaughn Meader, his guest appearance on The Joey Bishop Show would not be the only one to be cancelled following the assassination. Vaughn Meader had begun his career as a musician, but later became a stand up comedian noted for his remarkable impersonation of President John F. Kennedy. His comedy album The First Family, on which he parodied the president, was released in November 1962 and sold more than a million copies per week for its first six and a half weeks. He followed up the success of The First Family with The First Family Volume Two. Released in spring 1963, The First Family Volume Two did not do nearly as well as the first album, although it also sold well. With such success Vaughn Meader was very much in demand on television shows and in nightclubs. By late November 1963 Vaughn Meader was trying to take his career in a different direction, devoting more time of his act to other comic material and folk songs than his President Kennedy impersonation. Unfortunately for Mr. Meader, he was still strongly identified with the President.

Immediately following the assassination Vaughn Meader said he would never impersonate President John F. Kennedy again. The albums The First Family and The First Family Volume Two were pulled from circulation and any remaining copies destroyed. The two albums would not see print again until issued on CD in 1999. Unfortunately none of this would prevent scheduled appearances of Vaughn Meader on ABC's folk music show Hootenanny,CBS' panel show To Tell the Truth, and the Grammy Awards from being cancelled. His final television appearance, on the 3 May 1964 edition of The Ed Sullivan Show, received only a lukewarm response from the audience. Two comedy albums issued in 1964, Have Some Nuts and If the Shoe Fits failed to sell. One last comedy album, The Second Coming, released in 1971, also bombed. Sadly, Vaughn Meader never was able to revive his career and died in 2004.

Although to a lesser degree than television, the assassination of John F. Kennedy would have an impact on motion pictures as well. Among these was a film that was already in theatres on 22 November 1963. The comedy Take Her She's Mine, starring James Stewart and Sandra Dee, had been released on 13 November 1963. Following the assassination a scene in the film in which a character supposedly speaks to Jacqueline Kennedy was cut. Two scenes featuring an imitation of John F. Kennedy's voice were overdubbed with another voice. In all only about a minute and a half of the film was affected and it did not alter the movie's continuity at all.

The Best Man, based on the 1960 Gore Vidal play of the same name, centred on a a presidential candidate. While it was not set for release until June 1964, it would be affected by the assassination of John F. Kennedy nonetheless. Any and all references to the Kennedys were cut from the film. Like Take Her She's Mine the cuts were minimal and did not affect the film's continuity in any way.

While Take Her She's Mine and The Best Man would only be minimally affected by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a much more famous film would find its history inextricably tied to the event. Indeed, the first press screening for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was scheduled for 22 November 1963. When news of the president's death broke, the screening was cancelled. It would be because of the assassination that the release date of Dr. Strangelove would also be moved. The premiere of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was to be in London on 12 December 1963. It was on 28 November 1963 that Reuters reported that  Columbia Pictures and producer/director Stanley Kubrick had decided that it would be "...inappropriate to release a political comedy at the present time." The premiere of Dr. Strangelove was then moved. It would make its debut in the United States on 29 January 1964.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb would also see one line of dialogue changed due to John F. Kennedy's assassination. Major Kong's line, "Shoot, a fella' could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff" was originally "Shoot, a fella' could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff." It was redubbed out of respect for the President, who had been assassinated in Dallas. Contrary to popular belief, the enormous pie fight that formed the original climax of Dr. Strangelove was not cut due to the assassination. In fact, the pie fight sequence had been cut well before 22 November 1963. Viewing the footage of the pie fight, Stanley Kubrick decided it was too farcical and not in keeping with the satirical tone of the film. He then cut the sequence and shot a new climax for Dr. Strangelove.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worry and Love the Bomb was not the only motion picture to see its release date moved because of John F. Kennedy's assassination. Paramount had planned to release Seven Days in May (1964), John Frankenheimer's political thriller about a plot by military leaders to overthrow the United States President, in December 1963 so it would be viable for Oscar consideration. Following the assassination its release date in the United States was moved to 12 February 1964.

One film that had been in release before the assassination of John F. Kennedy would be withdrawn from circulation afterwards. PT 109 portrayed John F. Kennedy's actions as a Lieutenant Junior Grade in command of Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 during World War II. The film had been released on 19 June 1963. Following the President's death Warner Brothers withdrew the film from release as the studio did not wish to capitalise on tragedy. Curiously, some movie goers were upset with Warner Brothers' decision to withdraw PT 109 as they would like to see the film about the late President's heroism during World War II.

CBS promo photo for The Manchurian Candidate's TV debut
While PT 109 was withdrawn from circulation following President Kennedy's assassination, here it must be pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, The Manchurian Candidate was not. John Frankenheimer's thriller about brainwashing and assassination would remain available well into the Sixties and Seventies. Indeed, the film made its television debut on The CBS Thursday Night Movies on 16 September 1965, only a little less than two years after John F. Kennedy's assassination. CBS aired The Manchurian Candidate again in 1966. NBC aired The Manchurian Candidate on 27 April 1974 on NBC Saturday Night at the Movies. The network aired it again in 1975. Not only was The Manchurian Candidate shown on television well after the John F. Kennedy assassination, but it was still shown in theatres afterwards as well. Looking through back issues of New York Magazine one can see where it was shown at various New York City cinemas in the Sixties and Seventies. For instance, From 17 October 1968 to 21 October 1968 it was shown at the Elgin. On 29 January 1972 it was shown at the Thalia. It was still being shown at New York City theatres in the late Seventies. Both it and Dr. Strangelove were shown at the Bleecker Street Cinema on 18 November 1978. If The Manchurian Candidate was unavailable for a time (and I have my serious doubts it ever was), it was not due to John F. Kennedy's assassination.

The same sort of story about a film being withdrawn in the wake of the John F. Kennedy assassination has also been told of another film starring Frank Sinatra and also involving an assassination plot. Suddenly (1954) starred Frank Sinatra as John Baron, a psychopath intent on assassinating the United States President. It has been claimed that Frank Sinatra had Suddenly pulled from circulation after he had heard that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched the film on television not long before assassinating President Kennedy. I have not been able to confirm whether Suddenly was pulled from circulation following the assassination or not, but it does appear that Lee Harvey Oswald did not watch the film in October 1963, not long before killing the President. Research has shown that Suddenly did not air in the Dallas/Fort Worth market that month. Instead, it appears that Oswald had watched another film involving a political assassination, John Huston's We Were Strangers (1949). We Were Strangers centred on revolutionaries intent on overthrowing the Cuban government.

If urban legends have arisen about various films being pulled from circulation in the wake of John F. Kennedy's assassination, it is perhaps because so many episodes of TV shows and even the release dates of motion pictures had been rescheduled in the days following the President's death. John F. Kennedy was the first American President to be assassinated in 62 years (the last had been William McKinley in 1901) and the first to be assassinated in the era of mass communications. In many ways it was an unprecedented event and it resulted in both shock and a prolonged period of national mourning. It should be little wonder, then, that the broadcast networks and Hollywood studios would rush to insure that they did nothing to add to the shock and pain that the nation at large felt. Indeed, while in the years since John F. Kennedy's assassination the broadcast networks and motion picture studios would reschedule episodes of TV shows and the release dates of motion pictures following tragedy, it would not be matched until the events of 11 September 2001.

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