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Emilio Estevez: The Relevance of “Bobby”

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Emilio Estevez says that his film “Bobby,” focusing on the lives of Ambassador Hotel workers, campaign volunteers and hotel guests on the day before Robert Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968, was written before 9/11, and that “the movie is more relevant now than if I had made it in 2002.” He said it was a “sad accident” that the film brings up issues of war and voter intimidation. Front and center in the film are anxieties over the Vietnam War. Also mentioned are concerns over new IBM voting machines, used for the first time that California primary to tally votes. Estevez discovered this in doing research at the Los Angeles Public Library, and inserted an amusing scene where a Kennedy campaign worker warns against hanging chads.

Speaking after a Variety screening at the Aero Theater on Monday, Estevez says that he got the idea for “Bobby” in 2000, when he was doing a photo shoot at the Ambassador and caretakers took him to the pantry. “We stood in this place and it was hallowed ground.” He said the moment brought up memories of moving to Los Angeles in 1969, when his father, an already politically active Martin Sheen, took the family to the Ambassador Hotel and toured the Embassy Ballroom, telling his children, “This is where it happened, this is where the music died.”

It took several more years to line up financing, line up an all star cast, and to get the film into production. The Weinstein Co. is giving it an Oscar push. And RFK’s widow, Ethel, has praised the film, which opens Nov. 17, but she was not involved in the production.

The film is a tribute to Kennedy but also to the Ambassador, torn down earlier this year (Estevez says they were demolishing portions of the property as they were shooting). Anthony Hopkins, playing John Casey, the film’s retired doorman, rattles off a history of the hotel that includes hosting film legends, U.S. presidents and Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

But the picture is bound to strike a chord with the entertainment industry figures who were there with RFK that night and are still living. In a tribute to the Ambassador for Variety’s V Life in 2005, screenwriter Budd Schulberg relayed his experience:

“Jeezuz, it is like it happened 10 minutes ago, it is that vivid,” Schulberg says. About 11 p.m., with Robert Kennedy’s victory in the California primary all but certain, Schulberg went to the senator’s bedroom where he was sitting on the floor, smoking a tiny cigar. Just days before, Schulberg had taken RFK to the Watts Writers Workshop (which the screenwriter co-founded), and “he was very struck by it.” RFK left to give his speech in the Embassy Room, as Schulberg and other writers like Pete Hamill and George Plimpton waited for him in the pantry. Of the moment, Schulberg says, “I could see him falling backward.” Sirhan Sirhan fled right down an aisle into Schulberg. “I actually held (Sirhan) for five seconds and he had this little tiny gun, Schulberg says. “I’ll never forget it because it looked like a little toy gun. He was very small and he quietly just twisted out of my hands.” Sirhan shot again, but football legend Rosey Grier and others finally got a hold of him. Schulberg and others went back to the RFK suite. By the bed were doodles that Kennedy had scrawled in the wait for primary returns. Strangely, the police never showed up to question the witnesses. “We stayed there all night, shocked and talking, but nobody ever came to the room. Finally at about 6 a.m. we separated and went home.”

Addendum: Paul Schrade, the Kennedy aide who was wounded that same night, will be on a panel Thursday at the Los Angeles Press Club to talk about the film and RFK’s legacy. With him will be journalist Ed Guthman, who worked as RFK’s press secretary,  and former Los Angeles City Controller Rick Tuttle, who was to be a Kennedy delegate that year. Dan Blackburn moderates. Football star Rosey Grier, a Kennedy campaign volunteer who apprehended Sirhan Sirhan, also will be there.

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