Film: Searching for Bobby

Emilio Estevez brings his longtime passion to the screen

Weinstein Co

Emilio Estevez directs Christian Slater on the set of Bobby.

Emilio Estevez still doesn't know why, but one day in 2000 he and his brother Charlie Sheen found themselves doing a photo shoot at Los Angeles' long-closed but still infamous Ambassador Hotel. It was where Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was fatally shot the night he won California's crucial Democratic presidential primary in 1968.

The site made little sense for the film they were promoting, Rated X, a feature about the real-life San Francisco pornographers Jim and Artie Mitchell. Estevez, who had become well known as a young "Brat Pack" actor of the 1980s and linchpin of later Mighty Ducks family movies, had directed that film, and he and Sheen co-starred as the Mitchell brothers.

"It wasn't something I had requested," Estevez says today of the photo shoot's location. "It was perhaps the photographer. I never got to the bottom of it, but there I was."

To him, it was one in a series of "divine interventions" that gave him the inspiration to write and direct the new film Bobby.

With an impressive cast of familiar stars and relative newcomers, Bobby follows 22 fictional characters at the Ambassador on its most tragically historic day — June 4, 1968, into the first hours of June 5. Kennedy was fatally shot by Sirhan Sirhan in the Ambassador's pantry after addressing supporters in the ballroom.

In the melee, as onlookers tried to help, five others were injured.

During that 2000 photo shoot, as Estevez walked through the quiet 500-room hotel near downtown that had been closed since 1989, he was struck by memories.

"They walked us into the pantry and we stood there and the 1960s came flooding back to me," he says.

In particular, Estevez remembered his only other time at the hotel, on a day in 1969. He had moved to Los Angeles with his parents from New York, where his father, actor Martin Sheen, had won acclaim on the stage in the drama The Subject Was Roses.

"That was the first stop we made," Estevez says. "We hadn't even gotten an apartment yet and he didn't have any intention of staying there because it was too expensive. But he wanted to stop and see it. I remember holding his hand, walking through the lobby and the ballroom, and I remember him telling me as a 7-year-old that this is where our world changed. This is where the music died."

Estevez already knew by then that his father had responded deeply to Robert Kennedy's idealism and anti-poverty crusading. On the morning after the shooting, during a family visit to Cleveland, he had hurriedly awakened his dad to tell him of the shooting. He knew his father would need to know.

And though he doesn't remember it, he says his father has told him they once went together to a rally in New York "and Bobby reached out and shook my hand."

In a Los Angeles hotel suite, relaxed on a sunny late-Saturday afternoon, Estevez speaks in an even voice; his face is so youthful that interviewing him is like talking to a sweet, well-behaved boy. One would not guess Estevez is 44.

As all of these family memories played on Estevez during the Rated X photo shoot at the Ambassador, an idea formed. "I said, 'Why hasn't anybody made this story about what happened here? Who were the other people? Who was here that night?' "

More reinforcement came quickly and unexpectedly. "Four hours later, I went to a red-carpet premiere of a movie called U-571 that my friend Jon Bon Jovi was in. I took my seat, the picture gets ready to start, and this guy comes in and plops down beside me and it was Bobby Shriver — four hours after I had left the Ambassador!" (Shriver's mother, Eunice, was Robert Kennedy's sister.) "I turned back to the screen and I started to sweat. I thought this was beyond weird. It was just divine intervention."

Though it took years to research, write and finance Bobby, Estevez's sense of pride and idealism about the project attracted a cast that includes his father and his one-time fiance Demi Moore as well as Anthony Hopkins, Harry Belafonte, Sharon Stone, Lindsay Lohan, Laurence Fishburne and many others as the hotel's guests, workers and campaign aides on that night.

The characters all are, in various ways, struggling with personal problems — William H. Macy's hotel manager is having an affair with a switchboard operator (Heather Graham). A guest being treated for depression (Sheen) tries to reassure his younger wife (Helen Hunt) he still loves her. The hotel's nightclub singer (Moore) gets drunk and harasses her long-suffering husband (Estevez). The African-American sous chef (Fishburne) tensely discusses racial issues with a prejudiced Latino kitchen worker (Jacob Vargas).

Christian Slater, who plays a hotel food-and-beverage manager, says Estevez had a special purpose in making Bobby.

"Emilio put something like this together to hear the words of a ghost," he surmises. "(It's) to say there was a time when we were moving together in this direction."

Told of Slater's comment, Estevez agrees but says the word he'd use is "spirit" rather than "ghost." "My intention was to remind people of the spirit of Bobby Kennedy and the fact that he recognized in all of us that we could be better than where we were."

With Bobby finally completed, Estevez is in a good place. Alas, the Ambassador is not.

After a protracted battle with preservationists, the Los Angeles Unified School District has demolished most of it for new construction. (Estevez was able to film parts of Bobby there.) His father and the Kennedy family supported the demolition plans, and Estevez agrees with them.

"If it stands for what Bobby stood for, it certainly should be the Robert F. Kennedy High School," he says. ©

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