Spike Airs a Look at John F. Kennedy Jr.'s Short But Eventful Life

Ileane Rudolph
John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife Carolyn Bessette
Courtesy of Spike TV

After doing bios on Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen and Chris Farley, Spike turns its lens on John F. Kennedy, Jr.,the golden son of President John F. Kennedy and  Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. His death at 39 in a 1999 small-plane crash shocked the country and cut short a life lived in the spotlight.

Executive producer Derik Murray tells TV Insider about the documentary, I Am JFK Jr., which premieres on Spike, on Monday, August 1.

Why look at JFK Jr. now, 17 years after his tragic death?
I was looking at doing a movie about JFK, and then Spike TV president Kevin Kaye said, “Why not JFK Jr.? He was beloved and died too soon.” It was a fantastic idea; we realized that story had not really been told.  And here we are in an election year with the great legacy of the Kennedy family.

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Was his life fairly easy to document since he was photographed and filmed obsessively since his birth?
That’s true. It was amazing how much he was a paparazzi target forever. There’s incredible coverage of him as a little boy surrounded by paparazzi as he crosses the street.

President John F. Kennedy with his son 'John John' in 1963, shortly before his assasination.

Courtesy of Spike TV

President John F. Kennedy with his son 'John John' in 1963, shortly before his assasination.

Who are some of the people who talk about John Jr.?
We have an amazing lineup of friends from his childhood, from Brown University, from his magazine George.  There are fascinating stories from rancher (and Grateful Dead lyricist) John Perry Barlow. When John was a teen Jackie called Barlow to get John out of New York to work on his Wyoming ranch. That led to a lifelong friendship.

What have you discovered is the theme that ran through John’s all-too short life?
John really understood that he was expected to be a great man. But in his own examination, friends say that he knew that performing the way he should may well bring greatness, but he focused on being a good man.  That drives the man of the stories they tell.

How did he express that?
Those who knew him share their stories of a man who cared about others. He seemed to be one of these guys who kept friends forever. Christiane Amnapour, CNN’s international journalist, who was one of his roommates at Brown was one of his dear friends. They were there for each other until he passed away. We did some private screenings for some of the cast. At one of the first, an old friend said,  “I haven’t seen my best friend since he died 17 years ago; watching this, I felt like I spent an hour with in his greatest moments.”

Everyone seemed to like him, even GOP pundit Ann Coulter, who had radically different politics.
That’s true. Ann says that very few magazines gave Republicans a voice, and John did, She was welcome at George. But then he also was friends with Larry Flynt, the Hustler publisher.

John F. Kennedy Jr. playing football in Central Park in 1994.

John F. Kennedy Jr. playing football in Central Park in 1994.

Though many longtime friends talked to you, John’s sister Caroline has barely a mention in the movie. Why? I assume she turned you down for an interview.
Caroline is in family photographs and new video. She, like many politicians, is very private. We’ve done other iconic figures with well known relatives, for instance Bruce Lee, and we didn’t go into his son Brandon Lee.

If John hadn’t died so suddenly, what did those who knew him believe his next step would have been? His main accomplishments had been as an Assistant District Attorney and publishing George, the celebrity and political mashup journal. Politics next?
My sense after talking to many people close to him was that starting a magazine with such ambition was something he really loved. There was lots of discussion that John would be ready to step into politics. He had those characteristics that make a fantastic politician including getting along with all kinds of people. They thought he could make a difference and rise quickly. But it may be that he would have followed his mother rather than his father and stayed in publishing.

Do any surprises come to light?
To be honest, there were no shocking revelations. He did not get into any serious trouble like so many of his cousins. There were some circumstances when he was mischievous as a teen, but nothing that would have brought him front and center in the tabloids.

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Was his marriage to Carolyn Bessette troubled in its last days? In every photo, she looks terrified and/or miserable.
We do talk about the fact that she wasn’t prepared for cameras in her face 24/7.  John took steps to ask for privacy to respect her as a private citizen. She was a victim and clearly not ready to stop into this world.  We’ve shared what we knew about the relationship.


Do you deal with the controversy about the wisdom of John flying his small plane in bad weather, which seems to have led to the crash that also killed his wife and his sister-in-law?
There’s lots of conjecture about that. We really felt the best thing to do was lay out all the facts. He flew; it was bad weather. There it was.

What is the film’s takeaway? Is it that he was determined to be  good person?
He was determined to be a good man; being a great man wasn’t enough. That was quite amazingly touching and more of us should aim for that. Secondly, it reveals how important the bond with his mother Jackie was. Their relationship was very close; it’s lovely to see.

I am JFK Jr., Premieres Monday, August 1, 9/8c, Spike TV.