'Killing Reagan' Team Talks John Hinckley Jr.'s Release, Differences From Bill O'Reilly Book

Ronald Reagan and Tim Matheson Split - Getty - H 2016
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Ronald Reagan and Tim Matheson Split - Getty - H 2016

It's been 35 years since John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, but the upcoming October premiere of Nat Geo's Killing Reagan is as relevant as ever given the recent news that Hinckley is set to be released from institutional psychiatric care.

"It is extraordinarily timely," director Rod Lurie told reporters Saturday at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour. "He's not coming to the premiere, I'll tell you that."

Like Nat Geo's three previous Killing movies, Killing Reagan is an adaptation of Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly's 2015 New York Times best-seller of the same name. The film centers on the events surrounding the 1981 shooting, which left his life hanging in the balance. Hinckley stood trial the year of the shooting and was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He has been confined to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., ever since, with judges permitting him to make house visits to see his parents beginning in 2005.

"Maybe Bill O'Reilly's got a lot of strings that he pulled to get Hinckley out," Lurie said with a laugh.

Oscar-winning documentarian Eric Simonson penned the two-hour TV movie, in which The West Wing grad Tim Matheson plays President Reagan and Emmy winner Cynthia Nixon portrays first lady Nancy Reagan. Newcomer Kyle S. More plays Hinckley.

The creative team weighed in on Hinckley's release. "Nancy wouldn’t like it," said Nixon.

"I think we can all understand the emotions of the Reagan family," said Lurie. "I think he's not a danger to anybody and he truly was mentally ill."

However, More argued that Hinckley won't ever be truly free. "They're always going to have one eye out," he said of the Secret Service.

The Killing Reagan book has been the subject of criticism for what some call historical inaccuracies, particularly the book's argument that the shooting affected Reagan's mental state for the rest of his time in office and possibly accelerated the Alzheimer's disease he was diagnosed with 13 years later.

However, the two-hour movie strays from the book in several ways. The film does not cover Reagan's childhood and his other love affairs the way that the book did and instead focuses squarely on the six months surrounding the shooting.

"We deal with the assassination attempt in a very limited way," said Simonson, who read approximately 25 books and accounts about the incident. "Whatever you see, we were very conscientious and very concerned that we tell the story the way that it happened."

Added Lurie: "I'm working more on Eric Simonson's Killing Reagan than Bill O'Reilly's. … I think the book is very entertaining, but [Simonson] had his own interpretation of what we needed to see."

Despite the changes made, executive producer David Zucker of Scott Free Productions, which has also produced the three previous Killing movies, said O'Reilly was still supportive and involved, including reading drafts of the scripts and looking at takes.

"He's not intrusive in anyway," said Zucker. "It's been a very very comfortable and, to date, very successful relationship we've enjoyed."

Lurie even recalled one day when O'Reilly visited the movie's Georgia set. "It was as if a combination of The Beatles and God had walked into the room," he said. "I was able to understand with my own eyes the incredible sort of influence that he has."

Killing Reagan is set to premiere Sunday, Oct. 16, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on National Geographic Channel.