Like the moon landing or the attack on the World Trade Center, anyone in a certain age group remembers where they were when they heard U.S. president John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Kennedy’s murder in Dallas, on November 22, 1963, shocked the world.
Television had everything to do with its impact. Time seemed to stand still as millions across North America followed the story live. For the first time in history, millions could attend a funeral, witness a second murder (the shooting, in custody, of the president’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald) and see a famous family deal with grief. There was no YouTube, Twitter or Facebook to spread that sorrow, only the one tragic story, played for days, on black-and-white TV screens in every household.
Regularly scheduled programming was shelved. Work on some TV shows stopped. “The Dick Van Dyke Show” taped that week’s episode without its usual studio audience, packaging that week’s show with “canned” laughter — the only time that happened in the entire run of the series.
There will be a hint of how omnipresent that story was in these next few weeks as television marks the 50th anniversary of what, to many, remains the most fascinating unsolved murder mystery of our time. Rob Lowe and Ginnifer Goodwin play JFK and his wife Jacqueline in an adaptation of Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s bestseller, “Killing Kennedy” (National Geographic Channel, Nov. 10). History has the documentaries “JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide,” and “Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live.” Both air as part of a full day of assassination-related programming on Nov. 22.
I was in Grade One at Our Lady of Peace School in Etobicoke, Ont., when our teacher, appearing shaken, wheeled in one of those boxy, black and white TV sets that sat high up on those chrome stands. We watched and listened as CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite gave us a history lesson none of us ever forgot.
Here, in their words, is where some of today’s TV stars were on that November day:
Jon Voight (“Ray Donovan”): I was in New York City. I was right next to a subway entrance and it was a hot day. I heard people buzzing. It was an interesting thing. Communication is interesting. When people have a certain emotion, it travels very quickly, especially that kind of trauma. You hear somebody almost fainting — “OOOO!” “What, What is it?” “The president is dead. He’s been shot.” Oh my God. First thing I did I called my wife and tried to calm everybody down. I remember vividly the feeling.
Len Cariou (“Blue Bloods”): I was in Winnipeg. And you know what was really bizarre? Watching an episode of “The Twilight Zone” in which there was an assassination. “The Twilight Zone” had gone back to the assassination of Lincoln. I was in a pub, believe it or not. I’m sure it was a rerun. They were talking about the assassination of Lincoln on “The Twilight Zone.” And the assassination of Kennedy happened the next day.
Don Ferguson (“Air Farce”): I was in my first year of college (Loyola, now Concordia, in Montreal) when we heard the news. I remember everyone — students, teachers, cafeteria staff, etc. — being stunned. Class routines disappeared. All we did was talk all day about what had happened and what it might mean. The United States was the best country on earth, President Kennedy was the coolest leader in the world, and not a single person saw this coming. It was unimaginable. A total shock that the president could be so “un-safe” in his own country, surrounded by his own countrymen. It was a rude awakening to what perils adult life and the future might hold.
Mark Harmon (“NCIS”): I think I was in fourth or fifth grade. No TV set, just an announcement. I just remember as a kid being impacted where the room was quiet.
Gordon Pinsent (“Republic of Doyle”): (My wife) Charmion and myself had just moved into our very first address, and were shifting our first furniture about — with added vocals — when Kennedy’s assassination flashed on; and we were silenced all the way from Dallas, as we watched it unfold… for days.
Art Hindle (“E.N.G.,” “Dallas”): I was working at Simpson’s as Christmas help in the men’s department on the main floor. Although usually busy, our department got suddenly very slow and those people walking through looked sad and distant. Then a friend called me. He was in the hospital for minor injuries from a car accident and had a TV in his room — a rarity in those days. He said, “Did you hear the President was shot?” I assumed he was joking and waited for the punch line. It never came. The next few days were a blur of half-mast flags, Cronkite, a second assassination, paranoia and a feeling among young liberal idealists like me that the world had suddenly become a different place.
Ted Danson (“CSI”): I was at Kent School for Boys (a private school in Connecticut). I was on my way to Latin class and the TV was on in the seniors’ common area where us younger folks weren’t allowed. I stopped to look for a second and ran to my Latin class late. They said why, and I told them why and they were furious that I would have made up such a horrible thing to cover up being late.
Margo Martindale (“The Millers,” “The Americans”): I was in May Drug Store in Jacksonville, Tex., eating cream of mushroom soup with Cheetos in it. I was in the Seventh Grade, and wore a body brace at the time. I was allowed to go early to order food for everyone because I had a disability. We were leaving lunch, paying, and heard it on the radio. Nobody believed it at the time.
David Suzuki (“The Nature of Things”): I was in my new lab at the University of British Columbia where we all “pushed” fruit flies. We kept the radio on and suddenly an announcer broke in to tell us Kennedy had been shot and very soon after that he was dead. The lab went dead silent as we listened to the radio and I remember the professor in the next office coming in and giving us hell for having the radio on so loud.
Syme Jago (“The Forest Rangers”): I had just turned 10 years old and we were filming “The Forest Rangers” up in Kleinburg, Ont. We were working in the studio and part way through the day the news broke that Kennedy had been assassinated. I don’t think I really knew what that meant but I did realize the tension in the studio was suddenly so strong. Even though we were still shooting on one set, the crew, office staff and others were all gathered around a radio on another set listening to the on-going broadcast. I think it was the first time I had ever seen adults cry. As a child, even though I didn’t really understand what was really happening, I knew something major was going on and I still remember it strongly today.
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.