Chris Cooper remembers, as do most Americans who were alive that day.
He was a long way back then from winning an Oscar, just a 12-year-old at school in Kansas City, Missouri, who got shocking news after lunch that Friday afternoon in November.
“We had a full hour because there were, at that time, kids that went home for lunch,” Cooper, star of films such as “Adaptation” and “American Beauty,” recalled. “School bell rang, we came in off the playground and started to settle down in class.” A girl who was returning to school burst in and told the class: President Kennedy had been shot.
“You were just stunned,” he said. “I don’t think the fear kicked in until later.”
That wasn’t all that kicked in. No other event in American history has stirred as many conspiracy theories as the JFK assassination in 1963. The federal government officially investigated it twice, once concluding that the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, another time saying he was “probably” part of a larger conspiracy to slay Kennedy in a Dallas motorcade.
Now Hulu is hoping to tease the drama out of that national doubt with “11.22.63,” a nine-part, time-travel epic executive produced by “Star Wars” director J.J. Abrams and starring James Franco as Jake Epping, a writing teacher who goes back to the early 1960s to stop Oswald and change the course of history.
Cooper, who says he hasn’t resolved his own doubts about the assassination, plays Al Templeton, Franco’s aging mentor who maintains a secret “rabbit hole” to the past in the back of his diner. The miniseries will premiere on Presidents Day, Feb. 15.
The book is a mostly faithful adaptation of Stephen King’s novel “11/22/63,” which became a bestseller when it was published in 2011. The book is not the type of King thriller known to millions of readers, a la “Carrie” or “The Shining.” It’s a what-if tale chockablock with real historical figures, some known to none but conspiracy buffs. The author has said he first envisioned the novel at the start of his career in the 1970s, but dropped it partly because the research was taking too long.
Bridget Carpenter, a playwright and former “Friday Night Lights” scribe hired by Abrams to develop the story for TV, believes the 900-page doorstop that King eventually produced makes for compelling episodic drama with minimal tweaks.
“There have been literally hundreds and hundreds of books published” on the assassination, Carpenter said, and yet all that digging has not yielded a national consensus on what happened.
“It is the ultimate American mystery ... I read (King’s) book knowing, ‘Sure, Oswald did it.’ However, I started digging in and spent two years reading many things that Oswald wrote, and now I’m completely like, ‘Oh, no, he didn’t act alone.’
“Which is hilarious because Stephen King is a complete single-shooter theorist,” she added. “I’m like, ‘You’ve changed my mind!’ and he went, ‘Oh, Bridget.’ ” (A spokesman said King was unavailable to comment.)
“11.22.63” was initially following a different path to the screen. The book was optioned by Jonathan Demme, the director behind “The Silence of the Lambs” and other films.
But Demme and King couldn’t agree on which parts of the sweeping narrative to include. In addition to Jake’s time-traveling, the novel spins a love story and child-abuse and murder subplot, as well as lengthy set pieces involving Oswald’s alleged stalking of former Gen. Edwin Walker and other historical details and speculations.
“We’re friends, and I had a lot of fun working on the script, but we were too apart on what we felt should be in and what should be out of the script,” Demme told the movie news site Indiewire in 2012. (A Demme spokeswoman could not be reached for comment.)
With Demme out, the project was picked up by Bad Robot, Abrams’ Santa Monica-based production company. Abrams has a deal with Warner Bros., which came aboard as the studio.
Carpenter, whose work on “Friday Night Lights” had garnered much positive attention, leaped at the chance to get involved. “I love time travel,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter did make a few changes that she felt were necessary for TV. That included having Jake land initially in 1960 rather than 1958, to make the story move along faster and to focus on the campaign battle between JFK and Richard Nixon. King signed off on that change and others, she said.
Hulu, the streaming service that has been investing aggressively in original programming, saw the opportunity to grab a high-profile project with big names attached. Abrams suggested Franco, who’s a fan of the King novel.
“He is so versatile (and) can feel like an Everyman, and that’s what you need in this character,” said Beatrice Springborn, who oversees original programming for Hulu. “He’s a schoolteacher, he’s a man of a certain age, he’s just gone through a divorce. You need someone who can play a guy that a broad audience is going to relate to.”
What his work on “11.22.63” didn’t do is resolve Cooper’s uncertainty about what happened that day more than 52 years ago. Much like the character he plays, Cooper can’t quite come to terms with it all.
“I don’t think Oswald was the lone gunman; I do think it was a larger plan,” the actor said. Despite the government investigations, “they never fully answered the questions,” he added.
“It will never end.”
Presidents Day, Feb. 15