Originally created 09/27/96

Actor portrays `best part' of Kennedy Web-



The first time Bill Oberst Jr. portrayed President John F. Kennedy, a woman in the audience sobbed throughout the show.

Afterward, the woman, who was a secretary in the White House during the Kennedy presidency, told Mr. Oberst his characterization made her grieve for the first time in 30 years.

That response was unexpected for Mr. Oberst. "It's not a heavy show," he said in a phone interview from Murrells Inlet, S.C. "It's an evening with the man, his humor, his passions and the things he cared about."

Mr. Oberst, a graduate of the University of South Carolina, will perform his one-man monologue, J.F.K., Saturday and Sunday at the University of South Carolina-Aiken's O'Connell Experimental Theater.

The 90-minute show begins with a press conference involving members of the audience, then continues with some private thoughts about the Kennedy family and a heated phone call with Alabama Gov. George Wallace about civil rights. Using historical documents, Mr. Oberst also portrays the former president answering letters from kids, his defiant Ich Bein Ein Berliner! speech and some words to young people.

"What I'm portraying is the best part of Kennedy," Mr. Oberst said. "Kennedy represented a time that's gone, that's lost, but there's this hope that there could be something true and real in, `Ask not what your country could do for you, but what you can do for your country."'

As a child, mimicking others was a way for Mr. Oberst to cope with being overweight and unpopular. He said his first imitations were of his teachers.

He found an escape from his lonely childhood in books, especially history books.

Doing research in the Kennedy Library in Cambridge, Mass., Mr. Oberst discovered that J.F.K. was born with one leg shorter than the other and that he suffered from jaundice. Those circumstances drew Mr. Kennedy to books, much as Mr. Oberst had developed a passion for reading.

Growing up, Mr. Oberst knew he wanted to make a difference in the country, so he ran for Congress. He lost, and returned to his characterizations.

"I wanted to portray people who would uplift the human spirit," he said.

Mr. Oberst has also portrayed Mark Twain and Jesus of Nazareth.

Although he doesn't compare himself to the former president, audience members often believe he is Mr. Kennedy.

Sometimes people ask unscripted questions during the press conference of the show, such as queries over J.F.K.'s alleged affair with Marilyn Monroe or decisions he made during his presidency.

"Kennedy is the most loved and most hated man of the 20th century," Mr. Oberst said. "At least one person shows up (at each performance) to embarrass Kennedy."