Producer Joel Surnow Says 'Kennedys' Was Nearly Killed Because of His Political Views (Exclusive)

 Peter H. Stranks/Reelzchannel/iStockPhoto.com.

The following story appears in the upcoming issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine on newsstands Thursday.

Joel Surnow was in the middle of a tennis game when he first realized The Kennedys might be in serious trouble. It was May 2010, and the Emmy-winning 24 producer was taking a break from preparing his ambitious $30 million miniseries about America’s political dynasty, a lavish production that was to signal both a new chapter in Surnow’s career and a bold move into scripted programming for the History channel. Stung by criticism from Kennedy family allies about a leaked early draft of the script, Surnow and his creative team were collaborating with History’s in-house advisers to ensure that the eight-part piece of historical fiction didn’t skew too far from the facts. But on that May afternoon, less than a month before shooting was scheduled to begin, the tenor of the relationship changed.

A routine script meeting between screenwriter Stephen Kronish and History historian Steven Gillon had not gone well, prompting Gillon to fly from New York to Los Angeles to meet with Asylum Entertainment, which was producing the miniseries with Montreal-based Muse Entertainment. At the meeting that morning, Gillon had produced more than 20 pages of color-coded notes outlining specific and wholesale new changes that needed to be made — and fast. A scene depicting the White House communicating directly with soldiers during the Bay of Pigs invasion had to be changed. The house in a scene featuring John F. Kennedy’s reputed mistress Marilyn Monroe was ordered to appear different. And so on. Asylum president and chief creative officer Jonathan Koch called Surnow on the court to relay the clear message: The level of scrutiny of the project had been ratcheted up, and if the changes weren’t made, the project would likely be killed.

"I was sitting there on the court, and I said, ‘This is real, and we might be in serious jeopardy,’ " Surnow recalls.

Many months later in January, even after producers made the requested changes and Gillon gave his blessing to the script, The Kennedys was abruptly yanked from History in advance of its planned airdate, perhaps the most high-profile television project ever shelved by its network after being greenlighted, filmed and nearly finished. The move likely cost History parent A&E Television Networks and its owners, Disney, NBCUniversal and Hearst Corp., millions of dollars in production and marketing costs and led to questions about the level of accuracy required of historical fiction, as well as allegations that network executives were bullied by the Kennedy family into censoring or shelving a project deemed critical of the powerful clan.

Indeed, in the wake of the miniseries’ cancellation, sources close to the decision-making process told The Hollywood Reporter that executives, including Disney/ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney, who sits on the AETN board, were personally lobbied by Caroline Kennedy, who has a book deal with Disney’s Hyperion publishing division and is planning to release a collection of interviews with her mother, the late Jacqueline Kennedy, this fall to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first year of JFK’s presidency. One source says Kennedy’s promotion of the book on ABC’s Good Morning America hung in the balance, based on what happened with the miniseries. In addition, Kennedy scion Maria Shriver, who attends church with Sweeney in the Los Angeles area, also has close ties to NBCUniversal, where she worked in its news division. She is said to have voiced her displeasure with the project to then-NBCU execs Jeff Zucker and Jeff Gaspin. (Through reps, AETN, Disney, NBCU and Hearst executives declined comment.)

Surnow, the rare outspoken conservative in liberal-leaning Hollywood, believes the May 2010 meeting provided a peek at the political forces that ultimately led to The Kennedys moving from History to the independent ReelzChannel, where it will have its world premiere on April 3. Surnow says he is still not sure who killed the miniseries at History, but he believes the project was doomed the moment he became involved.

"Because I am a known conservative, it appears that I was deemed unfit to be the person to produce this miniseries," Surnow says, breaking his silence on the controversy during a lengthy interview with The Hollywood Reporter at his Woodland Hills home. "This is despite the fact that I’m American, and John F. Kennedy was my president as much as anybody else’s president. I am a proud American, proud of the Kennedys for their accomplishments and their place in history, but none of that was given voice. I wasn’t Emmy Award-winning Joel Surnow, I was Rush Limbaugh’s and Roger Ailes’ friend Joel Surnow. And that’s all that mattered."

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The saga of The Kennedys began not with Surnow but with History senior vp programming Dirk Hoogstra, who, during a 2008 meeting with producer Jonathan Koch, mentioned that the network of Ice Road Truckers was interested in launching scripted historical dramas and that the Kennedy family might provide fertile material. On his way home from the meeting, Koch called Surnow, co-creator of Fox’s innovative counterterrorism serial 24, who had teamed with Koch on a pilot for TNT. As it happened, Surnow, now 56, was hanging out at his house that day with Kronish, a 24 writer and a big Kennedys buff. Surnow told Koch to drive over immediately.

“We sat in those chairs right there,” Surnow recalls, pointing to the porch under a walnut tree behind his ranch-style home in the San Fernando Valley, “and Kronish proceeded to basically tell the story of our miniseries. The story of Joe Kennedy, Joe Jr., the boys and everything that you sort of roughly remember about the Kennedys — but then in details that really made it come to life.”

In summer 2009, armed with a fully shaped outline, the producers and Kronish pitched Lifetime and History president Nancy Dubuc and development execs David McKillop and Hoogstra in New York. The story would chronicle a time frame going from JFK’s 1960 presidential election to Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, with flashbacks filling in the family’s story. Surnow, Koch and partner Steven Michaels, as well as Michael Prupas of Muse and producer Jamie Paul Rock, would form the key creative team, along with director Jon Cassar, editor David Thompson and composer Sean Callery, all 24 vets. Muse would raise almost half of the budget via international presales in a model similar to how independent films are financed, with AETN kicking in half the budget for U.S. rights (AETN later bought U.K., Latin America and U.S. home video rights).

In those initial meetings with History, were there any discussions of Surnow’s political leanings?

“No, zero,” Surnow says adamantly. “Zero, zero, zero.” But by then his conservative ideology was well known in Hollywood. An unabashed Republican (he sometimes smokes cigars with Limbaugh), Surnow and 24 had become embroiled in the national debate over the Bush administration’s position on torture. His post-24 projects included Fox News’ short-lived ½ Hour News Hour, a Daily Show of sorts aimed at conservatives.

"I said to Jonathan — during the process — that eventually the awareness of my political leanings and the friends I have could come back to bite us in the ass," Surnow recalls.

Those nibbles came quickly. Immediately after the project was announced in December 2009, critics pounced. In February 2010, The New York Times ran a front-page story in which former JFK adviser Theodore Sorensen called the project “vindictive” and “malicious.”

"At that point, things changed dramatically," recalls Muse's Prupas. "Suddenly there was greater focus on what was going into the material. But it seemed to me that we had a very supportive, enthusiastic network behind us.”

After enlisting Gillon and historian Robert Dallek, both of whom had written well-regarded books on John F. Kennedy, History encouraged the producers to deliver additional scripts and assembled a cast of film actors, including Greg Kinnear (John F. Kennedy), Tom Wilkinson (Joe Kennedy Sr.) and Barry Pepper (Robert F. Kennedy), along with Katie Holmes (Jacqueline Kennedy). With the HBO-caliber cast set, only final script approval remained. Surnow says the May 2010 meeting with Gillon and his color-coded memo led to a period of feverish, up-all-night writing and revising.

“They were down to specific words,” Surnow says. Producers, for instance, had wanted Jack Kennedy to go to Hyannis Port, Mass., before his father had a stroke, but the historians nixed that. “We had a magnifying glass over every line.”

Surnow reaches across the table, opens a computer and reveals an e-mail dated May 25 from Gillon to him, Koch and McKillop: “I have approved the latest version of episode one for historical accuracy. Congratulations.” Surnow has similar e-mails for all the other episodes.

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