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PT 109 was based on the biography written by Robert J. Donovan, who covered President John F. Kennedy’s campaign.
JFK’s father, Joseph, a former Hollywood executive, used his connections in the movie industry to get the project off the ground, and Warner Brothers agreed to make the film with a budget of $4 million.
The movie’s plot revolves around a young JFK and his crew as they fight to survive after being stranded.
JFK agreed to the Hollywood adaption under the terms that the movie not be a typical Hollywood exaggeration, that the film’s profits go to the survivors or their families, and that he be able to pick the actor that would play him.
Jeffrey Hunter and Frank Sinatra were considered, and Peter Fonda was tested. However, Fonda made waves when he fought against doing JFK’s accent for the auditon. While he eventually did it for the test, he had “under protest” written on the slate by his name.
Studio head Jack Warner didn’t appreciate the comment.
First Lady Jackie Kennedy suggested Warren Beatty after seeing Splendor in the Grass. However, Beatty turned down the role because he didn’t want to work with one of the film’s producers.
Enter Cliff Robertson.
Robertson was working on My Six Loves with Debbie Reynolds when he was told that he would audition.
“When I heard it had been arranged, I knew there were some powerful forces behind it,” Robertson said.
A few days after his audition, Cliff learned from a friend that his name was in the newspaper announcing he got the part.
“Kennedy picked me to portray him… It came as a great shock. I think it was one of the few mistakes he made in office,” Robertson joked.
After the release, Robertson also had the opportunity to meet the President in the White House.
“There’s a class act,” he remembered. “He couldn’t have been more gracious.”
The two spent time talking about the movie and their children.
“He said he was very happy with what I had done.”
PT 109 was the first film about a President that was realized while that President was in office.