The assassination of President John F. Kennedy 55 years ago, on Nov. 22, 1963, transformed television, creating the blueprint for all-hours news cycles and information-sharing viewers see today.
For four days, the world sat transfixed in front of their black-and-white TV sets, watching history unfold. In doing so, they helped legitimize the medium as the primary vehicle for news, one that could capture the immediacy of a moment in ways that print could never rival. While something clearly died inside the heart of America that day, something inside television was born.
The nonstop coverage of chaos mesmerized viewers with its imperfections. Jackie Kennedy’s blood-stained pink suit. Lee Harvey Oswald’s slaying. Such vivid images had never been seen on television before. Yet the more improvised moments viewers witnessed, ones without filters, the more real they felt. There were no accusations of fake news, just live images reported without partisanship or political intent.
For those old enough to have lived through the tragedy, Kennedy’s death remains as horrific today as the day it happened. Gone with him was the sense of optimism and hope, a pride in leadership we rarely see in politics today. The world was forever changed, and not for the better.
Below, The Hollywood Reporter asked entertainment celebrities, alive that fateful weekend, to share their memories and how it impacted them then — and now.
Whereas adults can personalize the shock and sense of loss, children, as retold here, tend to recall the fallout of their world breaking down around them. In addition, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, a teenager back then, remembers learning a harsh lesson in American violence and bigotry.
Tony Danza (Who’s the Boss): I was in school in Brooklyn and all the nuns were crying. I’d never seen nuns cry. Then I got home and everyone in my house was crying. My mother was crying. I just remember people crying.
Katie Couric (journalist): Our first-grade class at Jamestown Elementary was watching an episode of a show about flying squirrels. Mrs. Myers, who taught the other first-grade class, came into our classroom and whispered something to my teacher, Mrs. Lowery. Both teachers started to cry. They dismissed school early. I went home and watched the news on TV with my parents. I especially remember the funeral, because it took place so close to our home in Arlington, Virginia, just over the Chain Bridge from Washington, D.C. I can still see the cortège carrying the casket, John-John saluting as it went by and how beautiful Jackie Kennedy looked, even though she was grief-stricken and in black and white (color TVs weren’t available yet). I couldn’t process everything, but seeing so many of the adults in my life so distraught was confusing, and I felt in that moment the world would never be the same.
Kelsey Grammar (Frasier): I was in Miss Rizzuto’s third grade class at PS 22 in New Jersey. Our principal walked into the classroom and told her, and she started to cry. They let us out early. It was just a sad day. It was like when Sadat was shot. You say, “Oh no, people who were just trying to do the world some good.”
Marilu Henner (Taxi): I was in the sixth grade in Sister Mary Florence’s room at St. John Berchman’s school in Chicago. There was a kid in our class, always a troublemaker, but a really nice guy. He was late after lunch and told Sister Florence it was because Kennedy was shot. She told him that’s the worst excuse she ever heard and started smacking him in front of the class for lying. Then Father Liske came over the loudspeaker and said that Kennedy has been shot in Dallas and we should all pray for him. Sister Florence told the kid to go back to his seat. Minutes later, the Father came on again and said that Kennedy had passed away. It was so shocking to all of us. I came home and saw my mother crying. I hadn’t seen her cry like that since Clark Gable died.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Hall-of-Fame NBA star, THR columnist): I was a junior in high school and had just entered my social studies class when the principal’s voice unexpectedly came over the public address announcing the president’s death. We were all immediately sent home. I rode the subway just sitting by myself thinking about how violent America was. I wasn’t thinking about violence in an abstract, theoretical way, but in how we seemed so eager to direct it against people we fear and hate, all under the guise of some political statement. Two months earlier, the Ku Klux Klan had dynamited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama, killing four black girls, ages 11 to 14. It made me scared to think that people hated black people so much that they were willing to kill children and the president — a strong supporter of Civil Rights. How was I to walk the streets from now on and not feel afraid?
Kennedy’s presidency perhaps inspired no group more than the coming-of-age baby boomers. For them, he and Jackie embodied youthful optimism and activism, giving them a voice, sense of pride and inspiration to lead positive change.
Marsha Mason (The Goodbye Girl): I was in college and getting ready for school. The radio in the kitchen was on. My father and mother were having coffee and sitting at the small, round table. Then suddenly, there was the newsbreak. All I could think about was getting to school and being in the drama department with my friends and teachers. My mother didn’t want me to go. I insisted and drove the short distance, looking around me the whole ride to see if the world had stopped in its tracks like I had. It felt weird and strangely foreign. Why weren’t people doing something different? When I arrived, my favorite nun was there talking softly to a clutch of my friends from the department. We prayed. We shared our feelings and held each other close. I felt I was in a safe place, but the world would never be the same for me.
Jim Burrows (Will & Grace, Cheers): I was in my second year at the Yale School of Drama in New Haven. I had a walk-up apartment on Chapel Street. I was going upstairs and passed the office. They had the television on. It was Cronkite. I ran up to my room. It devastated me because of who he was and what he represented.
Robert Klein (actor-comedian): I was sitting at home in my parents’ apartment on Decatur Avenue in the Bronx. That was bad enough since I’d been away at school for five years. My father called from work and said, “Turn on the television!” There was Dan Rather and Cronkite. We hadn’t had such violence since McKinley, which seemed like ancient history. It wasn’t in anyone’s mind this could happen. It was like war, total devastation. I had tickets for a Broadway show two days later, which my favorite teacher at Yale had directed. It was a black spiritual ensemble: Tambourines to Glory. Pretty much the whole audience was weeping. A woman made a speech and they sang these spirituals. A theater full of people weeping.
Mike Farrell (M*A*S*H): I was getting in my car after auditing an English class at Orange Coast College and heard the news on the radio. JFK was the first president I was old enough to vote for and he meant a great deal to me for lots of reasons. It was difficult to take it all in. I sat in front of the television stupefied, as many people were. I watched Jack Ruby shoot down Oswald in the Dallas police department garage and then tried to figure out what the hell was going on. I felt betrayed when the news media, which used to characterize Lyndon Johnson as a local yokel from Texas, was suddenly calling him the savior of the country. I began to think something is terribly wrong here. I think we’ve never been told the truth about Kennedy’s death, his brother’s or Martin Luther King’s. And the country is a lot worse because of the result.
The suddenness and surprise of Kennedy’s death made it very difficult to process. Some took the loss personally. Most everyone mourned his death, save for one story shared by a future Emmy-winning actor.
Loretta Swit (M*A*S*H): I was working as a Kelly Girl [a temp secretary service] during the day, making my own hours so I could be free to go to acting classes and auditions. I was finishing typing something when the office manager came out and made the announcement. Everything just stopped like a freeze-frame. The images of him and Jackie were so joyous, youthful and ambitious. We took it as a personal loss. It was the end of embracing things like trust, peace, serenity, belief and confidence. The end of all good things.
Judd Hirsch (Taxi): I was on Wall Street working at a collection agency for people hiding from paying their hospital bills. When Kennedy died, a buzz went through the office. And I couldn’t believe the guy that I worked for was happy. I never heard a response like that before in my life. They were lawyers and they hated John’s father, so therefore they hated John. One of them said, “Good!” and I replied, “What?!” Everybody was walking around with their hearts in their hands. He’s president of the United States. Who cares who his dad was?
Dick Cavett (actor-writer-producer): I was shaving in my small apartment in Bel-Air, California, getting ready to drive to work. A portable radio, balanced on the sink, delivered the thunderbolt. It felt as if every cell in my body jolted. This must be what it feels like to be struck by lightning. For days, my mind was too thickly fogged with disbelief and aching sadness to think about the significance of it all. Right after the book depository became known as the source of the bullets, I recall a bitter voice saying, “That son of a bitch J. Edgar Hoover! He should have had an FBI man in every window of that building.”
Jim Brooks (Mary Tyler Moore): I was a fledgling news writer. Someone from the newsroom came and told us. We were like three blocks away from the office. There were five or six of us and we were all running together, crazy running because of all the confusion. I remember putting in a page to start writing and then the network took it away for a remote to Dallas and I looked at what I’d written, and it was gibberish. It was embarrassing. I’m Jewish, but all of us ended up going to St. Patrick’s Cathedral because we just needed to.
Alan Alda (M*A*S*H): I was getting out of a car. I remember the autumn leaves in the gutter and the neighbor next door said, “It’s terrible about the president isn’t it?” That’s how I found out. I think it was the first time I realized a president could be assassinated, and how it could affect our lives. We all knew about Lincoln, but Lincoln was so far in the past. It had the same effect on me it did on everybody else. Some part of your brain that had been devoted to that person was killed off.
No president prior and few since have mingled with Hollywood and appreciated the arts to the level that Kennedy did. His death and the end of Camelot hit the entertainment industry especially hard.
William Shatner (Star Trek): I was filming at Universal Studios when I heard the president was assassinated. The studio, for the first and only time in my career, closed.
Norman Lear (All in the Family): I was in bed and one of my daughters called and said, “Are you watching television, dad?” It cost me the next several days because I never left the TV set, like so many people I knew at the time. I saw Oswald killed after the fact, but I can see it still so clearly. Unforgettable.
Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeanie): My husband Michael [Ansara] and I were going to Dupar’s in Studio City to have brunch with friends. When we walked in, our friends were sitting in the booth with very somber looks on their faces. We immediately knew something was horribly wrong. We just couldn’t believe our ears. “Well, Kennedy was just shot and killed … He’s dead.” We were wiped out. We sat there, barely speaking, barely eating. We simply couldn’t believe it. It was a safer world then. We’ve become inured to all kinds of horrible things now. It was deeply shocking, unnerving and horribly sad. We went home, turned on the television and watched the horror. It made you look at everything differently. Even this many years later I remember that sick feeling as it all settled in. It’s something you never forget.
Harry Belafonte (singer/actor/civil rights activist): I was in Paris visiting with a director about embarking on a motion picture venture when I got the word. At the time we didn’t know who the villain was. I raced home immediately because I wanted to assuage any violence that would erupt if they thought a black person assassinated him. I had to be back in America to be a voice for black rationale.
Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront): Jeff [Hayden] and I were in the office, at the end of the house, when all of a sudden, I heard our 8-year-old son, Darrell, crying. He came running down the long hall and rushed into our room. Then our daughter, Laurette, who was 5, came in crying. I couldn’t imagine what had happened. I just lost my breath. And Darrell said, “Someone killed President Kennedy!” We were a close-knit family and it was a horrible, horrible day. What could you say to them? How could you soften that in any way? Just thinking about it, my heart gets broken all over again.
Joan Collins (Dynasty): I was in a taxi driving down Park Avenue in New York, cradling my newborn baby girl after seeing her pediatrician. Suddenly, we noticed cars pulling over to the curb and people getting out with expressions of shocked dismay, which gave way to tears. I asked the taxi driver what was happening, but he didn’t know. As soon as we got back to my apartment I heard sounds of inconsolable weeping coming from the office of my husband, Anthony Newley. He was with his one-time writing partner, Ian Fraser, and the housekeeper, all of them sobbing. When they told me that our wonderful president was dead, I sank onto the sofa, still holding my baby and started sobbing myself. I couldn’t stop for three days. To me he epitomized everything wonderful in America and it felt like someone had wrenched all the hope and optimism from my soul.
Kennedy served as president for less than three years, but his words and deeds live on today, proving the impact that politicians can have and the sense of hope inspirational leaders can offer.
Saint: I remember what Kennedy said at his inauguration: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Saying that in front of the world gave us a sense of responsibility. What can you do? I vote. And that’s the most important thing if we want America to change.
Belafonte: History made John Kennedy. John Kennedy did not make history, but that history was precisely the upheaval in which this country had as its dawning. If he hadn’t been president during the time of the Civil Rights movement and if there had not been a war in Vietnam, if this country wasn’t being torn apart he would never have seen the light of day. But he stepped into that space. He was the architect of Civil Rights and he worked hard to get that into his presidency. And when he died, Johnson took over that charge and handled it very well.