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Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Feb. 27, 2024

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For 60 years, JFK’s assassination haunted Rob Reiner. Now he thinks he’s solved it

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According to director Rob Reiner, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, has been a wound on the American psyche for 60 years.

“I was a junior at Beverly Hills High School,” Reiner says on a recent video call. “I was 16, and yeah, I will never forget it.

“I remember a student coming in and talking to my physics teacher,” he says. “Mr. Crean. I remember his name. And he turns to us and he says, ‘I have some terrible news,’ and he told us. And then we all got sent home.”

Reiner remembers the overwhelming grief, the sense of something precious irrevocably lost. Like most, he watched the story unfold on television. The swearing-in of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. The grief-stricken face of the widowed first lady Jackie Kennedy. The shock of suspect Lee Harvey Oswald being killed on live television by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby.

“I mean, it never stopped,” Reiner says. “What the hell is going on here? You don’t really know. And certainly, I wasn’t thinking anything other than what the government told me was true.

“Until the Warren Commission report came out and people started finding fault with it. Saying maybe this isn’t the true story here.”

Six decades later, Reiner says he hasn’t lost his fascination with what really happened in Dealey Plaza as Kennedy’s open car passed through downtown Dallas.

But now Reiner thinks he knows what really happened and in the 10-episode podcast “Who Killed JFK?” he and journalist Soledad O’Brien are telling that story.

The Kennedy assassination was and in many ways still is a national trauma, he says. And in a time of great division in the United States, where truths large and small are often rejected by those who disagree with them, the podcast seemed like a worthy project to pursue.

“It’s important that people know the truth of what happened,” Reiner says. “Because we’re now in a weird time in our country where disinformation just flies out. It’s hard to get a handle on the truth. We’re more divided than we ever were.

“To me, democracy is now in a really tough place,” he says. “And if it’s gonna survive, it has to be based on truth. All of those things came together for me as to why I wanted to do this.

“It’s also the greatest murder mystery in the history of America, so you’re trying to solve a murder mystery, too.”

Eyes open

For Reiner, the initial acceptance of the Warren Commission report, which in September 1964 ruled that Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible for Kennedy’s murder, started to fade within a few short years.

Reiner hadn’t read the report or really questioned its findings when at 19, he and Larry Bishop, his high school classmate and son of entertainer Joey Bishop, were performing their comedy act at the Hungry I in San Francisco. Political satirist Mort Sahl was appearing In a smaller room at the North Beach club, and he had most definitely read it front to back and back again.

“Mort had kind of abandoned his act,” Reiner says. “I mean, he was this great political satirist, but he wasn’t doing that. He was only talking about the Warren Commission. It was all about the lies that the government was telling us.”

In 1966, author Mark Lane’s “Rush To Judgment” became the first book to challenge the official report.

“As you heard more and more, and then we read more and more about it, it just doesn’t hold together,” he says. “The story that they tell just doesn’t make sense.”

There were forensic questions including skepticism over the so-called single-bullet theory – the idea that a single bullet passed through Kennedy’s neck, and then into the chest of Texas Gov. John Connelly in the front seat of Kennedy’s car, and then through Connelly’s wrist and into his thigh.

“In 1968, ‘69 I was writing for ‘The Smothers Brothers Show,’” Reiner says. “The show was very politically oriented so I was around people who were into that, and trying to figure those things out – you know, exit wounds and entrance wounds and grassy knolls and all that stuff.”

The Zapruder film, a silent 8 mm color film shot by Dallas resident Abraham Zapruder that captured the moment Kennedy was shot, wasn’t widely available until March 1975 when comedian Dick Gregory brought a bootleg copy onto Geraldo Rivera’s late-night TV show “Good Night America” for its first-ever national broadcast. The loud gasps of the studio audience, which are heard in the podcast, reveal the shock it carried when people saw that for the first time.

“You watch the Zapruder film over and over again,” Reiner says. “And then when you watch that, it really becomes clear. No way that a bullet comes through Kennedy and then stops for a little while and it waits to hit Connelly. None of it makes sense. And Connelly himself said to ‘til the day he died, ‘The bullet that hit Kennedy didn’t hit me.’”

Hints and clues

As a filmmaker, Reiner has had success in a variety of genres, scoring hits with movies such as “This Is Spinal Tap,” “Stand By Me,” “The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “Misery.”

But he’s also had a long-running interest in stories that explore powerful American institutions – from the military in “A Few Good Men” to the civil rights movement in “Ghosts of Mississippi” and journalism, politics and war in “Shock and Awe.”

So it makes sense that while filming the 2016 biopic “LBJ” – Woody Harrelson as the vice president who succeeded JFK in the movie – Reiner’s long-simmering interest in the Kennedy assassination would be rekindled. The film’s producer introduced him to journalist and author Dick Russell, who has written extensively about the killing of Kennedy since the 1970s.

“After I met Dick, I thought, you know, maybe there’s a way to put this together as like a miniseries of something,” Reiner says. “We made a deal at Paramount, and they developed it. They optioned three books I was interested in, and we did three episodes, three scripts.

“Then the guy who was the executive got fired, so they scrapped the project, and it was all done,” he says. “And I put it away for a while.”

Several years later, as Reiner and wife Michelle Reiner started listening to more podcasts, the old idea resurfaced.

“There were lots that we were drawn to and one was a podcast that Soledad O’Brien did called ‘Murder on the Towpath,’” he says.

“So I started thinking, well, maybe a podcast is the best way to handle it,” Reiner says. “It’s something that I’ve been tracking for 60 years, everything something new turns up. And what I wanted to do was try to find a way to put it all in one place, because when new revelations come out, people hear it, the press hears it, and they all go, ‘Oh!’ But they don’t put it in context with everything.

It’s like a little piece of the puzzle that comes out, and if you’re not following it intimately you won’t know what that puzzle looked like,” he says.

Reiner believes he, O’Brien, Russell and others involved or interviewed in the podcast have finally solved the puzzle.

“The foundation for a healthy democracy is the truth,” he says of the change he hopes the podcast, and its conclusions, might bring about. “You cannot aspire to a more perfect union unless you agree on certain truths. You cannot whitewash truths. You cannot pretend they don’t exist.

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“So the more we can tell the truth, and bear it, the stronger we will be.”

So what is the truth of the Kennedy assassination? With more than half the podcast to go, Reiner won’t spoil it, though he’s willing to share a hint or two.

“I’m very confident on the conspiracy part of it,” he says. “That, I’m 100% confident on. Exactly who did what, we make our best guess based on all the information we have.

“We name the shooters,” Reiner says. “We name the positions the shooters were in. Some people say there were four, others say five, and I’m still wrestling with that. But based on the forensics, we know there were four.”

And there’s one more thing, a teaser of revelations to come.

“We say in the podcast for sure there was somebody up on the sixth floor, and there were people, there was somebody, firing from the sixth floor,” Reiner says. “I’m gonna ask you this question: Why did the first shot miss?

“That’s a key to what our theory is,” he says. “That’s all I’m going to tell you. But the first shot missed. It missed the motorcade altogether.”

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