Robert Schenkkan was only 10 years old when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon Baines Johnson became what he calls “the accidental president.”
Yet the Austin-bred playwright, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for “The Kentucky Cycle” and Distinguished Young Alumnus Award honoree from the University of Texas, recalls how his family reacted to Johnson.
“My older brother told me: Funny thing, I don’t remember Johnson much,” says the author of Broadway-bound “All the Way,” the LBJ drama that recently nabbed the nation’s top critics’ prize for playwriting. “But I remember how incredibly respectful our father was around the man.”
His father, of course, was Bob Schenkkan, public broadcasting pioneer who started KLRU and KUT. His brother is leading Austin attorney Pete Schenkkan, who, in turn, is married to poet Mary Frances Victory. Their son is “Southland” actor Ben McKenzie, making the Schenkkans among the city’s leading creative families.
The playwright spoke Thursday at the LBJ Presidential Library with the star of his drama — the first of two about LBJ’s presidency — Bryan Cranston, who chose “All the Way” as his first big project after finishing a spectacular run in TV’s “Breaking Bad.”
It all started in the Hill Country.
“It was said we were invited to the ranch,” Schenkkan says. “There was a trip, and the car got stuck in the mud, and Lyndon came out and put his shoulder to the car.”
At some point, the playwright’s father was forced to ask then-Sen. Johnson’s permission to start a public TV station in Austin, since it would compete directly with Lady Bird Johnson’s media empire.
“He got not only permission but Johnson’s respect,” Schenkkan says. “He went on to sign the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.”
The playwright remembers the Johnson-Goldwater campaign of 1964.
“I read the papers, wore stickers and felt joy on election day,” he says. “Two-and-a-half years later, with my brother facing the draft, I had a different feeling about Johnson. Then years later, as a young artist with a family to support, I was grateful for the social safety net he built, realizing it came from the best part of the Great Society. It’s been an interesting journey.”
Schenkkan, known for taking on big, chewy projects for stage and film, had long wanted to write about LBJ. His chance came when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival received an enormous grant to pay 27 American writers to cook up something about American history along the lines of what Shakespeare did with the Tudors.
“I find the character so extraordinarily fascinating,” he says of LBJ. “When I started to research him and got into the man and what he accomplished, it really grew.”
Separately, Schenkkan and Cranston — who played LBJ in the pre-Broadway Boston run, but not earlier in Oregon — explored the president’s life and career at the LBJ Presidential Library.
“It was a very difficult choice to decide which LBJ story to tell,” Schenkkan says. “I could have started with the young representative getting a leg up in the world. Or I could have gone with his first senatorial campaign, stolen from him, or his second, which he stole. I settled on the accidental president of 1963 and ’64.”
“All the Way” went on to win the prestigious $25,000 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award from the American Theatre Critics Association. The prize recognizes the best new play produced outside New York.
So successful was his first take on LBJ that Seattle Repertory Theatre has already commissioned a second drama, “The Great Society,” which focuses on the later years of his presidency. The play goes into rehearsal in May 2014 and will debut in Oregon later in the summer. (To confuse matters, Alexander Harrington’s competing take on LBJ, which ran off-Broadway in August, is also titled “The Great Society.”)
Schenkkan’s received a good deal of help from LBJ Library director Mark Updegrove, who wrote his own LBJ book, “Indomitable Will,” which lends an impressionistic view of the presidential years.
“Such good anecdotes, such good stories, such good dialogue,” Schenkkan says. “LBJ always fascinates. Not always positively, but you can’t take your eyes off him, as I gather was true in life.”
After “All the Way” premiered in Oregon, veteran Broadway producer Jeffrey Richards agreed with that assessment and searched for just the right star.
“Only a handful of individuals have the wherewithal to play this part,” Schenkkan says. “It’s like Lear. The man is onstage for almost the entirety of two hours and 45 minutes. He must be charming, personable and terrifying. Bryan really fit the bill. He read the script and fell immediately in love with it.”
So what’s next? As usual for Broadway, the right theater building must open up. (Meaning another play must close.) The contracts are signed and the marketing campaign is underway with expectations of a January premiere.
Since graduating from UT, Schenkkan’s career has taken a remarkable course. He acted in shows such as “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Santa Barbara.” His writing was nominated twice for Emmy Awards for episodes of “The Pacific” (2010), and he won wide recognition for his screenplay of “The Quiet American,” based on Graham Greene’s anti-war novel.
His dark, sprawling, multi-part 1993 drama, “The Kentucky Cycle,” copped him that Pulitzer and earned a Tony Award nomination, too. It’s still produced widely, especially by universities.
“I was ambitious,” he admits. “I had high expectations. I worked very hard, but I don’t discount luck at all. More than honors or awards is the idea that I have been able to live life as a writer and been able to work consistently at a very high level. There have been disappointments and failures along the way. The older I get, the less confident I am about how it works. At the end of the day, I write what seems important to me in the moment. I do the best I can, and it has the life it has.”
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, culture and history
More on the assassination anniversary
Inside Life & Arts: A roundup of recent JFK books, XXX
Travel: Revisiting Dallas’ Sixth Floor Museum
More online: For more of our coverage, go to statesman.com/JFK50