JFK was America’s first camera-ready president, and that has not changed since his death.
Perhaps more than any other moment in American history, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has played out time and time again on television screen, in movies and in nearly every other form of popular entertainment. The unforgettable Zapruder footage and detailed reenactments of the tragedy that struck on Nov. 22, 1963, have allowed the chilling crucial seconds to be relived unlike few other epoch-defining events.
The rifle shots that meant the end of Camelot will take center stage again as the 50th anniversary approaches and a new group of JFK-themed offerings debut. The moment is recognized around the world and across generations with references appearing throughout popular culture, and sometimes in very unexpected places.
Small screen, big laughs and mysteries
It was not surprising to see the scene unfold on "Mad Men," as the period drama is set solidly in the era of gin-swilling businessmen and their cigarette smoking secretaries, after all. But on 1990s sitcom “Seinfeld”? The comedian and his oddball group of friends are hardly ripped from the pages of the Warren Commission report.
And yet, in a two-part episode titled "The Boyfriend," the conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy’s death were a key inspiration for a pivotal plotline. When characters Kramer and Newman get spit on after heckling players at a baseball game, a debate rages over whether a single loogie struck them both, or if the unpleasant projectile was the work of a "second spitter" — a nod to the infamous theory that Lee Harvey Oswald had an accomplice the day he shot the president.
Allusions to the many speculations that have become tangled up with JFK’s death over the years are so widespread that it’s impossible to list them all. But there are some definite standouts.
"The X Files" alone featured dozens of direct and indirect mentions throughout the series, and gave a name to the show's resident conspiracy theorists, The Lone Gunmen (who were later spun off into their own short-lived, self-titled show). Animated series "Family Guy" has paid irreverent tribute to the assassination in multiple episodes, from slamming an inept marksman for being "nearly as bad as Lee Harvey Oswald” to showing a JFK Pez dispenser take a bullet.
Even cult favorite "Doctor Who" used a still shot from the Zapruder reel (with the Ninth Doctor edited in) to illustrate the Time Lord's omnipresence throughout the years,
The unanticipated references are just as common in the land of film. In 1994's "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," Jim Carrey's leading man made a mock mea culpa, exclaiming, "I was the second gunman on the grassy knoll!" Don’t leave out air-headed fashion models: In the 2001 Ben Stiller comedy "Zoolander," a conspiracy buff (appropriately played by David Duchovny of "The X-Files" fame) blamed male models for every assassination ever. And while Oswald wasn't model material, "those two lookers who capped Kennedy from the grassy knoll sure ... were."
The infamous grassy knoll merited another shout out in the 2009 big screen adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel "Watchmen," wherein super-antihero The Comedian was portrayed as having fired the fatal shot from there.
Politics and music are common bedfellows. And in the case of JFK's death, songwriters from Billy Joel on down have woven that fateful day in Dallas into their melodies. Some have even courted controversy with their lyrics. Scottish band The Jesus and Mary Chain's 1992 single “Reverence” featured the lyrics, “I wanna die just like JFK / I wanna die on a sunny day / I wanna die just like JFK/ I wanna die in the USA.” The song was banned by a British music TV show, but reached No. 10 on UK music charts. The tune received airplay in the U.S., and was also included in the soundtrack for 1992’s “Pet Sematary II.”
Shocker rocker Marilyn Manson took things a little farther in 1999 with the video for his single “Coma White,” in which he and then-fiancée Rose McGowan portrayed JFK and first lady Jackie in a re-creation of the assassination. The video, filmed in February, collided with controversy before it was even released, when JFK Jr. died in a plane crash on July 16. After its release, Manson said in a statement, “I used the assassination of JFK as a metaphor for America's obsession and worship of violence. My statement was always intended to make people think of how they view, and sometimes participate in, these events.”
Sultry songstress Lana Del Rey also re-enacted the assassination in her own fashion in the video for her 2012 song "National Anthem."
Fodder for play
JFK has made digitized appearances in at least two video games, and 2004’s “JFK Reloaded” tested players’ knowledge of the assassination in a rather unexpected and very controversial way. The game, released on the 41st anniversary of JFK’s death, put players in the shoes of Oswald. The objective? To kill the president and see how closely gamers could come to matching the details of the murder as described by the Warren Commission.
In an interview on MSNBC, Kirk Ewing, the managing director for the company behind the game, defended the product. “We see (the game) as a natural extension of media interest in what is one of the world’s most pivotal historical events,” he explained.
“Call of Duty: Black Ops” took a much less controversial approach. The 2010 first-person shooter presented the president in cut screens that had him giving an assignment to protagonist Mason, and also hinted at a character’s participation in the president’s assassination. In the game’s “zombie” mode — where the objective is to kill the undead — gamers can choose to play as JFK.