''A Woman Named Jackie'' -- Behind the scenes of NBC's miniseries

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated October 11, 1991 at 04:00 AM EDT

Did Marilyn Monroe sprawl on a bed with a headboard or without a headboard that day in 1962 when she phoned the White House looking for Jack Kennedy and Jackie answered and Jackie told Marilyn that she was willing to step aside and divorce her husband, the President of the United States, if Marilyn was prepared to marry him and move into the White House?

Production designer Stewart Campbell thought: headboard. Definitely. Which is why he supplied Marilyn’s hairpin-strewn bedroom — in reality a single on the first floor of the Jefferson Sheraton Hotel in Richmond, Va. — with a big, padded, ’40s-glamourpuss thing at the head of a rumpled bed.

But executive producer Lester Persky thought: no headboard. Definitely. So did Eve Gordon, an actress who, wigged and painted, would soon do her part as MM but at the moment looks like a mom at a mall in shorts and a T-shirt; more to the point, Gordon has produced as evidence a book about Marilyn that includes photos of the real bed in question. Which is why a brigade of chunky young men wearing bandannas and small single-hoop earrings and rolls of electrician’s tape slung on their belts have disassembled the headboard and are re-rumpling the pillows. And why Roma Downey, the little-known 28-year-old Irish actress who plays Jackie, is cooling her heels, in bedroom slippers, in her mobile dressing room out back behind the hotel. And why production on A Woman Named Jackie, NBC’s six-hour, three-part, big-ticket miniseries airing from 9 to 11 p.m. Oct. 13, 14, and 15, has come to a temporary halt on a steamy Southern summer day.

Not for nothing has this latest entry from the bottomless bin of Kennedy- inspired, ratings-grabbing TV scripts and screenplays been billed as ”meticulous” and ”detailed”; indeed, so virtuously historical is this Jackie that NBC has decided to teach class right up against baseball’s World Series on CBS. (Kennedy’s uses of counterintelligence are well documented; the use of Kennedy in counterprogramming has been less well explored.)

”I don’t care what you have to do — just remove that headboard!” barks Persky, striding down the hotel hallway. Persky is slight and dapper and in his mid-60s and apt to refer to ”Jackie” and ”Jack” and ”Ari” like old friends. Which, in a way, they are: He optioned the rights to C. David Heymann’s 1989 nonfiction best-seller, A Woman Named Jackie, in 1987, when it was still in outline form.

”Is there a better story around?” he asks, smiling like a man who has invested in blue-chip stock on the American miniseries-plot exchange.

Persky knew Heymann’s work well enough to take the plunge; in 1987, he turned Heymann’s book Poor Little Rich Girl: The Life and Legend of Barbara Hutton into a high-ratings miniseries starring Farrah Fawcett. So although he claims he worried for a time that the project would simply be ”yet another book about Jackie,” he trusted the author’s ”meticulous care and tremendous research.” ”This is a different Jackie,” he says confidently, ”a Jackie we’ve not seen.”

At the very least it’s a different approach to casting. begin with, there’s no William Devane or Martin Sheen doing a broad JFK accent this time around but stage and TV actor Stephen Collins (Tattinger‘s), who creates Kennedy more with inflection and posture than imitation. And there’s no Jaclyn Smith or Blair Brown or Francesca Annis doing a star turn but, rather, Roma Downey, a somewhat overwhelmed actress whose biggest TV credits were six months on ABC’s daytime soaper One Life to Live and a gig last season in NBC’s Black Jack Savage. Composed, willowy, with Jackie eyes and a Jackie smile, Downey beat out hundreds of women for the job. Other unusual casting includes fine British actor Joss Ackland (White Mischief) as Aristotle Onassis, Josef Sommer (Witness) as Joe Kennedy, and Australian actress Wendy Hughes (My Brilliant Career) as Jackie’s mother. (Devane does show up — as Jackie’s father.)

”Jackie is our most stellar American woman,” Persky says. ”To balance that fame, we knew we wanted to get someone less known for the role.”

The one they got — who portrays Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis from age 16 to 60 — sits quietly in her trailer on this relentlessly hot, flat day, listening to tapes of Jackie. ”I’m trying to keep a breathiness in my voice,” she breathes in familiar, wispy tones, her Irish accent smoothed away. ”I’m fearful to turn it off.” Born the year JFK was assassinated, she grew up in Derry, Northern Ireland, and then Belfast. Whisked down to Virginia for this job with very little time to prepare, she sticks pictures of Jackie in her mirror and keeps a Jackie-like aloofness from the rest of the cast.

The historically inaccurate headboard has been banished. The room next to the Marilyn suite has been transformed into a Democratic convention hotel room. And in it, Stephen Collins hunkers on a side chair, necktie loosened. ”I wasn’t anxious to do this part,” he says. ”I had been offered John Kennedy roles twice before and turned them down-first because I was too young and then because I didn’t find the script engaging. But then my wife (Faye Grant) read this script, and she said it could be fun. The challenge, for me, is to be faithful to the sense of the private Jack Kennedy.” The challenge included deliberately not listening to JFK tapes. ”I don’t want to do an impersonation,” Collins says.

And yet Persky wants authenticity. So prop girls sit idle while crew members create presidential suites worthy of the senator from Massachusetts out of gracious hotel rooms in the heart of the Confederacy. Downey, now wearing the maternity clothes of Jackie’s pregnancy with John Jr., waits, aloof as ever, in her dressing room. And in the basement, Russian-born costume designer Shelly Komarov logs in the thousands of costumes she presides over in the course of the series, including a re-creation of Monroe’s spectacular, poured-on, sequined Happy-Birthday-Mr.-President dress — and three pink suits that chronicle the tragedy of that Dallas motorcade 28 years ago.

In a few days, the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination scenes will be staged. Jackie will watch LBJ (Brian Smiar) be sworn in on Air Force One. History will be repeated, as history often is, especially Kennedy history, especially on TV. And Lester Persky insists that the pillbox hat on Roma Downey’s head be placed just right — as history, and ratings, demand.