BY BILL D'ELIA
When Sen. Ted Kennedy passed away in August, there were many remembrances written about him. I have one that goes in my personal scrapbook. I directed Ted Kennedy’s one and only appearance in a television series.
John Tinker and I were the executive producers of Chicago Hope when John got the idea that we should do one of those “special episodes” and travel to Washington, D.C. to do a show about healthcare in America. More specifically, children’s healthcare.
The premise was that Chicago Hope was lobbying for more federal funds for the hospital. For a stagebound show shot in Los Angeles, going to Washington to shoot an episode was going to be expensive. The network (CBS) said they would not approve the overage in the budget since there was nothing inherently promotable in the episode. So we went about trying to find something promotable. Stunt casting seemed plausible. What if we got then President Clinton to do a cameo? Or perhaps Ted Kennedy? Well sure, the network would approve the money then. But how could we do that? We called Kennedy’s office. The answer was a polite “Senator Kennedy doesn’t appear in fictional programs.” The White House didn’t even respond.
I always wonder when someone says “no,” what they mean exactly. How much “no” is in that answer? Was it almost a “yes?” Was it almost a “maybe?” So I went back to Kennedy’s office and explained that it was an episode devoted to shining a light on healthcare for children. We also reached out to Kennedy through two other avenues.
At the time, the late Ron Silver was in the cast of the show and played the owner of the hospital. Ron knew Kennedy and placed a call on our behalf. Also, the late father of our producer, Jim Hart, had been a senator from Michigan and was a friend of Ted’s. So Jim placed a call to Kennedy’s office as well. This time he said “yes.” We got the overage approved.
Kennedy’s office let us know that he would be available for only two hours on our shoot day. The senator agreed to meet with us the day before to discuss the scene. I remember standing on the second floor of the Senate building waiting for our meeting, looking down from a balcony to the floor below, when I heard that booming familiar voice behind me. I don’t remember what Kennedy said, but it startled me to hear the famous cadence so close. I turned and saw him in person for the first time. My first thought was, “Wow, he looks like Ted Kennedy, only older.” For me, Ted was forever the young Kennedy and his age just caught me off guard. Of course I had seen him on TV, but he looked older in person. He greeted us warmly and agreed to the text we provided but asked that we have cue cards to make it easier and faster for him on the set.
Instinctively, I felt that I needed to keep it simple for him. I had to create a scene in which he felt comfortable being himself and not be distracted by too many takes and notes from me. I had only two hours with Kennedy to shoot a scene that would normally take at least four. So I planned to block and shoot, film his coverage and let him go, then film the rest of the scene without him.
The day of the shoot we lit the scene with a stand-in for Kennedy. With our cue cards ready, he showed up and took his place. During the first rehearsal, he barely glanced at the cue cards, but brilliantly addressed the issue. The intent was the same as what was written, but the words had completely changed. So I asked him: “Do you want the cue cards, or do you want to say what you just said?” Either way was fine with me since what he said made all the points needed for the scene and, frankly, was better than what we had written for him. He decided against the cue cards. In take after take, Kennedy spoke eloquently about the healthcare crisis in America. The only problem was that no two takes were alike. He said something different each time and each time was as good as the time before. I was mesmerized as he got the intent of the speech every time, and every time did so with different words and different emphasis. It would be hard to edit, but was a thrill to watch. He finished well within the two hours he had given us. My memento for the day: a signed copy of the speech he never read, to “My friend Bill D’Elia.”
We had two other near meetings. Well, one was a meeting, one a phone call. At a meeting of the DGA PAC Leadership Council that I could not attend due to my responsibilities as executive producer of Boston Legal, Kennedy wanted to know where was his friend Bill Dee-aall-ee-ah, mangling my name once more in that familiar cadence of his. And the day after his Obama endorsement speech I called his office, got a call back, but never spoke to the senator. I left a message telling him how his speech touched me, and how meaningful and moving it was. His assistant, who remembered me from the Chicago Hope shoot, told me that Kennedy was a big fan of Boston Legal.
But there was one moment that remains my most enduring and charming memory of him. After his first take in that Chicago Hope scene, I leaned in to him closely to give him some direction. “Listen,” I said, “what you’re doing is really good, but could you lose that phony accent?” He looked at me expressionless for what was, for me, a very long moment. I thought that I had made a serious mistake. I thought maybe I miscalculated how funny I was. He stared at me as if I had three heads. Then he smiled that famous smile, threw that lion’s head back, and roared with laughter.