Emilio Estevez knows exactly where he was the day Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It was just after midnight West Coast time on June 5, 1968. Emilio, the older brother of Charlie Sheen and son of future “West Wing” president Martin Sheen, had just turned 6.
“We were staying at my grandmother’s house in Ohio, and I remember seeing the news on television and running upstairs to tell my father, `Bobby’s been shot!’” recalls Estevez, the writer, director and co-star of “Bobby,” a sprawling drama about the hours leading up to the assassination.
“The following year, when we relocated to Los Angeles, the first stop we made was the Ambassador Hotel.”
You might say Estevez was fated to make “Bobby.” He does. One by one, he ticks off the times his and Kennedy’s paths crossed. His actor-activist father worked on Robert Kennedy’s Senate campaign in New York ... Emilio, age 5, shook hands with candidate Kennedy at a victory rally. ...
“I only really remember it as told,” he clarifies. “That’s how it lives in my mind.”
The memory obviously became more vivid as the years passed because the former Brat Packer and star of “The Mighty Ducks” movie became obsessed with a different kind of biopic - one that would concentrate not on Robert Kennedy, but on the guests and workers at the Ambassador Hotel who rub shoulders with the candidate. Anthony Hopkins, Freddy Rodriguez, Elijah Wood, Lindsay Lohan, Sharon Stone, Laurence Fishburne, Harry Belafonte, Martin Sheen and Demi Moore, Estevez’s former co-star and fiancee, play the roles of people who are among those in gunshot range when Sirhan Sirhan appears at the door of the Ambassador.
Estevez plays the husband-manager of a broken-down nightclub singer (Moore).
But Bobby, who’s glimpsed in newsreels and heard delivering impassioned civil rights speeches, remains a bit player in the movie bearing his name.
And this caused no end of consternation when it came to securing financing in Hollywood. Ultimately, Estevez went abroad to Belgium for the $10 million necessary to make the film. It helped that Oscar-winner Hopkins, who plays a retired doorman, committed early. He became “an actor magnet,” says Estevez. “Word got around town fast, and it became a matter of who you said `no’ to, not who you said `yes’ to.”
Still, Estevez got the royal runaround at the major studios. The movie about Bobby that wasn’t really about Bobby was discussed, considered, passed on - for six years.
He winces as he recalls the “merry-go-round” meetings.
“We’d sit down and the financiers would say, `Well, there’s no central character on which to hang your hat. Who’s the star?’ I’d answer, `Well, Bobby’s the star.’ They’d come back with, `If Bobby’s the star, why isn’t it a biopic?’”
Estevez’s ready retort: Because it’s a movie about the spirit of Robert Kennedy and how it needs to be revived in these hard times. “At its heart,” he told potential backers, “it’s a movie about all of us.”
It didn’t help that Estevez had been out of the spotlight, raising a family, developing projects, such as a “Rocky”-like feel-good movie about harness racing. In the eyes of some, he was still the teen star of such Brat Pack comedies as “The Breakfast Club.”
“Hollywood is a cruel, unforgiving place,” he says. “It’s all about `What have you done for me lately?’ And I haven’t done anything for anyone. I’ve been trying to figure out the next phase of my life and career ... and keep the wolf from the door.”
As for Brat Pack stigma, that’s your problem, not his. “I just wish everybody else could move past it, like I have.”
Co-star Joshua Jackson, who plays a Kennedy campaign worker, still can’t believe the hoops Estevez had to jump through. “It feels like such a no-brainer,” he says. “But back then, the political situation wasn’t correct and `Crash’ hadn’t made a splash. Also, Emilio hadn’t directed a film in a couple of years.”
The surprise success of the multiple-narrative “Crash,” which won the best picture Oscar in 2005, brought “Bobby” back into play. Belgium industrialist Michel Litvak finally anted up the $10 million budget. He was looking for a vehicle for his Russian wife, Svetlana Metkina, eventually cast as an eager Czech journalist.
“It took a European, a foreigner, to see the wisdom of this project,” says Estevez, savoring the irony. “I was resistant to it at first because it’s an American film about an American icon. But it worked, and opened us up to the European market.”
Estevez’s model for “Bobby,” which was shot for five days in the Ambassador Hotel before it was demolished? Something brainy by Oliver Stone, like “JFK” or “Nixon,” right?
No, those all-star disaster flicks of Irwin Allen, such as “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno.” “As a kid, I remember going to see `The Towering Inferno’ at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and running across the street to see `Earthquake.’ In many ways, my movie is a disaster movie of the heart.”
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Harry Belafonte, Lindsay Lohan, Elijah Wood, William H. Macy, Freddy Rodriguez, Laurence Fishburne, Demi Moore.
Director: Emilio Estevez.
Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes.
Rating: R for language, drug content and a scene of violence.