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For nearly five decades, the story of Sen. Edward Kennedy, then 37, and a suspicious car crash on July 18, 1969, on Massachusetts’ Chappaquiddick Island that resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, 28, seemed destined to be told only in documentaries. That changes with the April 6 release of the John Curran-directed drama Chappaquiddick.
However, there was at least one other feature about the accident that garnered sizable media attention but went unmade. In 1979, late actor and first-time producer Glenn Stensel said he’d “swear on my SAG card we have money from several backers” to make an $800,000 film ($2.7 million today) called Chappaquiddick. Besides the fact that a film about Kennedy would attract intense attention in a year when the senator was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, Stensel told the Los Angeles Times that he had another motive: He was a licensed undertaker in Illinois and fascinated with mysterious deaths. To play Kennedy, he lined up Boston-born Jack Knight, who had dozens of TV credits.
“I knew Glenn from playing basketball at the YMCA in Hollywood,” says Knight, 80. “He was kind of a hustler, more of a talker than a guy who could actually make a movie.” But Knight went so far as to research the part in Massachusetts and even traveled to D.C. to discuss the script with a Kennedy staffer. (He describes the aide’s reaction as “terse.”)
Knight says the general feeling was the campaign didn’t want voters to be reminded that the married candidate had been in a fatal late-night accident under sketchy circumstances with a young woman. “Financial backers were worried about repercussions from the Kennedys and the Democratic Party,” says Knight of what killed the film. “It wasn’t like someone said, ‘Be careful when you start your car in the morning,’ but no one was saying, ‘This is great. Go ahead, make the movie.'”
This story first appeared in the April 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.