The President’s Kid Brother

Jack Holmes performs his one-man show about Robert Kennedy

It was, Jack Holmes said, “a standard agent’s question.” This was 10 or so years ago, when the pride of Scranton, Pennsylvania, was a wishful actor in New York.

“This agent said, ‘Who do you remind people of?’ and I hemmed and hawed and then she said: ‘Well, you remind me of Robert Kennedy.’ I said: ‘That’s strange, I’m thinking of writing a play about him.’ As soon as I said it I walked out of her office, walked down the street, and said to myself: ‘Yeah, I’m going to do that.’”

Holmes at the time was living across the river in Hoboken. He’d read Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s 1980 biography, “Robert Kennedy and His Times” “I’m a fanatic about books,” Holmes explained, “and there was a bookstore in Hoboken I used to haunt. Downstairs in that store I came across an old box, opened it, and the entire box was full of books about Robert Kennedy.”

That clinched it. He knew he had hold of a good idea.

 The good idea—written by Jack Holmes, performed solo by Jack Holmes, directed by Larry Moss—opened this week, after ten days of previews, as a Culture Project presentation at 45 Bleecker Street.

At a tryout two years ago at the Sierra Madre Playhouse near Los Angeles it was called “The Awful Grace of God,” from a line in Aeschylus much admired by Robert Kennedy. Now it’s called, all simply, “RFK.” Another good idea.

Any other changes?

“Just shorter,” says Holmes dryly. A youngish leather-jacketed chap who declined to give his age but said, “I have no memory of RFK,” he nevertheless has the forelock of RFK, the blue eyes of RFK, the lean and hungry jawline of RFK. To a request for him to talk like RFK, he said, “Come see the show.”

He had spent the next few years after the incident of the box downstairs in the bookstore “doing other things”—studying acting under William Hickey at the H.B. Studio on Bank Street, studying composition under Stanley Wolfe at Julliard. The music in “RFK” is by pianist Holmes.

And the script, as indicated, took the best part of several years.

“I did it just completely on my own,” Holmes said. “My own research, my own feelings, my own take on it. There was a very solitary quality to Bobby Kennedy. A private quality. An introspective quality after November 22, 1963, that makes him ideal for the form of a one-man show.

“I used to rent the Sierra Madre Playhouse one day a week, just for myself. In the empty playhouse I would go up on stage and go through the script, totally by myself. The guy who rented it to me, gave me the key, was Barry Schwam. He had no idea what I was doing, until one day about a year later when he came in and asked: ‘What are you working on?’ and I told him. He looked me over and then said, ‘Yeah, wow, what a good idea, let me know if you want to do it here. I’ll bring it up at next month’s board of directors meeting.”

And that’s where the piece did open prior to what Holmes calls a six-week “proper run” in July and August 2004 at the Court Theater in Los Angeles. It also had one performance at 45 Bleecker Street, with Alan Buchman, head man of the Culture Project, sitting in and liking it.

“And here we are,” said Jack Holmes, middle son of five of retired Dr. John Holmes, M.D., and Alice Holmes, the real RFK fan in the family. “I guess she’s a fan of both John and Robert, but more of Robert.”

“Oh, yeah, we’re Irish,” he added. “I grew up in a big Irish family. Sort of a rough-and-tumble environment. My father?”

The playwright rested his chin in his right hand, and thought. “I know more of my father’s attitude [toward the Kennedys, and RFK in particular] by his response to my play, which was very positive.”

The play opens with Robert F. Kennedy, attorney general to his brother the president, brooding about how “Life is a game of Russian Roulette” and about his own tense relations with J. Edgar Hoover, who keeps tabs on everybody, and whose telephone call to his Virginia home, Hickory Hill, a little less than three years later will abruptly inform Robert Kennedy: “The president’s been shot.”

The play ends with RFK, now a U.S. senator from New York, on the high note of having won the California Primary on June 4, 1968. He is in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, on the way to celebrate his moment of triumph. He speaks to his brother—the dead big brother for whom everything, including approval from their father, came so much more easily.

“I’m 42 now,” Robert Kennedy says. “Can you believe it? Johnny, you’d hardly know me.”

In this play, some of which you can argue with, in greater or lesser detail—I hardly think Adlai Stevenson gave “boring” speeches, for one small instance, though Robert Kennedy may have thought so, and RFK never jumped until Eugene McCarthy mopped up LBJ in New Hampshire—for all that, in this play you get to know RFK pretty well.