LOS ANGELES – Matthew Perry doesn’t bear much of a physical resemblance to Ted Kennedy, but at least he had nailed the late senator’s distinctive way of speaking. Or so he thought.
Before showing up for filming “The Kennedys — After Camelot,” a miniseries debuting Sunday on cable’s Reelz channel, the former “Friends” star said he had spent a dozen sessions with a voice coach. But after just a few minutes of shooting, director Jon Cassar pulled him aside and gave him the bad news: The accent was off. Way off.
“I sounded like Foghorn Leghorn.”
Perry adjusted on the fly. And while the final result may be a less-than-believable impersonation — you never stop wondering why Chandler Bing would abandon that sweet girl at the bottom of a Chappaquiddick channel — he adds enough dramatic gravitas to keep viewers swept up in the Kennedy saga long after the assassinations of JFK and RFK. At least, that’s the hope of the Hubbards, the prominent Minnesota family that launched Reelz in 2006.
“The term ‘American royalty’ gets tossed around so much that I hate to use it, but there’s some truth to that,” said Stan E. Hubbard, who runs the cable network out of Albuquerque, N.M. “Very few people don’t have strong feelings about them, whether it’s love or hate. Nobody is blah about the Kennedys.”
Hubbard’s ties to the Kennedy franchise date back to 2011, when the History Channel abruptly decided not to air what was envisioned as its first miniseries, “The Kennedys.” Reelz scooped it up and slapped it on the air eight weeks later. The film, starring Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes, would earn the network its highest ratings to date and four Emmy wins.
Almost immediately, Hubbard announced he was backing a sequel based on J. Randy Taraborrelli’s bestseller “After Camelot,” chronicling the Kennedys’ triumphs and tragedies (mostly tragedies) from 1968 through 1997. It wasn’t cheap. At four hours, “After Camelot” is only half as long as the original, but the price tag is estimated to be more than $10 million, with a significant chunk dedicated to luring Perry to the cast and securing Holmes to reprise her role as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Both stars serve as executive producers and Holmes directed the third of the four hours.
The actress’ return coincides with Natalie Portman’s Oscar-nominated work in “Jackie,” a feature film that focuses on the first lady as she seesaws between shellshock and sly manipulation in the weeks following her husband’s assassination.
In “After Camelot,” Jackie is more or less a rock, somehow floating above the troubled waters that always seem to rise around the family she married into.
“I think Natalie did an incredible job and I’m glad we both had the opportunity to interpret this character,” said Holmes, who actually looks more like Jackie as she braves jealous glares from Bobby Kennedy’s widow, accusations from second husband Aristotle Onassis that she has cursed his family and a losing battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “Although these projects are coming out at the same time, ours covers a different time period. So you can see both and get something different from each.”
Holmes could have become overwhelmed, juggling a daunting role and duties behind the camera, but a certain accessory helped her maintain grace under pressure.
“Jackie had this very distinct black leather Cartier watch and we got a vintage one,” she said. “There is something so classic about it that so embodied her style, understated but elegant.”
‘It scared me’
Perry has the more difficult challenge in trying to engender sympathy for the entitled youngest son whose negligent driving resulted in the 1969 drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne, a former campaign worker for his brother Robert.
Ted Kennedy frequently cheated on his wife, Joan, who maintained a deeper relationship with her bartender than her husband. The two-part film, which concludes next Sunday, eventually paints him as a crusading, well-intentioned senator, but you’re never quite able to shake the scene from Chappaquiddick — perhaps the first time the incident has ever been re-created for the screen — as Kennedy stumbled away from the accident, leaving his passenger to die.
“I took this job because it scared me,” Perry said. “There was a lot of emotion and tragedy, and just the age range” as he depicts Kennedy over the course of three decades. “I told Jon [Cassar] so many times, ‘It’s making me crazy.’ ”
Perry’s future, however, isn’t riding on “Camelot’s” success. The same can’t be said for Reelz.
Hubbard used the positive reception to the 2011 miniseries to promote a series of reality shows, most notably “Hollywood Hillbillies,” aimed at capitalizing on the country’s then-thriving fascination with “Duck Dynasty.”
It didn’t work.
“The reality shows didn’t attract attraction and we couldn’t justify them anymore,” he said.
Hubbard said he would love to invest in more big-budget projects, but Reelz has focused mostly on inexpensive documentaries, many of them centering on celebrity deaths.
“We don’t have the luxury of doing something major once a year,” he said. “If you’re going to do scripted television, it’d better be good or better than anyone else, and big stars aren’t going to work on a project that doesn’t have great production value. You have to pick your spots.”
There are no immediate plans for Reelz’s next sweeping miniseries, but Hubbard isn’t ruling out another chapter in the Kennedy saga. He points out that Taraborrelli will publish a biography about Jackie’s family later this year.
“I haven’t seen a transcript yet, but I can promise you this: It’s a book I’ll be digging into.”