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ABC News looks at the legacy of JFK Jr. 20 years after his death

John Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessett,

John Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessett, arrive at the U.S. Customs House in New York City on May 19, 1999, for the Newman's Own/George Awards honoring generous American companies.  Credit: Getty Images/Diane Freed

NEWS SPECIAL "The Last Days of John F. Kennedy Jr."

WHEN | WHERE Thursday at 9  p.m. on ABC/7

Where were we on the morning of July 17, 1999? We probably remember vividly. The day was hot. (That's for sure.) The day before seemed hotter. The news came as it did in those days, first on radio, then on TV, like a knife through the sultry air. A Piper Saratoga that John F. Kennedy Jr. was flying to Martha's Vineyard had disappeared over the ocean the night before. Also on board was his wife, Carolyn, and sister-in-law Lauren Bessette. All three were presumed dead. Fragments of the plane were discovered July 19, and the plane wreckage located the following day. Kennedy was 38, Carolyn — a publicist for Calvin Klein — 33, and Lauren, 34.

The 20th anniversary year has arrived. At his death, Kennedy was one of the most famous people in the world — beloved, idolized and hounded, mostly by a media that could never get enough of him. It still can't: On Thursday, ABC will air the two-hour "The Last Days of John F. Kennedy Jr.," the first in what is expected to be a line of documentaries, reminiscences and tributes.

Per program notes, this one will explore the "stressors" he was dealing with in his final days, notably his struggles with the fading George, the glossy he had launched with Michael J. Berman in 1995 — "Not Just Politics As Usual" (remember that?) and which folded in 2001.

ABC did not provide a screener, but only one act — which covers some well-known facts about the fateful flight. This program promises the first interview with ex-girlfriend Julia Baker. ABC declined to say whether the Bessettes or Berman had cooperated. JFK and Berman had had a falling out. A total of 25 people were interviewed, including childhood friend Sasha Chermayeff, Brown roommates Richard Wiese and Chris Oberbeck, ex-girlfriend Christina Haag and RoseMarie Terenzio, his assistant at "George."

I reached out to veteran correspondent Deborah Roberts, who reported this, with some questions. (She was traveling and she responded via email.)

As the first film of this 20th anniversary year, how did you want this one to stand out?

This is a very intimate look at [his] life. We thought we knew his family but how much did we really know about him as he came into his own, as a young man born into privilege but desperately trying to lead a normal like under such harsh scrutiny? [It's] about the young man himself, his struggles, his loves and his hopes for his future.

Does it focus exclusively on those "last days?"

We explore his entire life [and] will reveal rare video and pictures of John in and around New York City . . . with his various loves over the years, from Madonna to Daryl Hannah to Carolyn Bessette.

George appeared to be ready to fold at the point of his death; does the film offer insight into whether it would have survived had he lived?

We look at the struggles to keep it afloat [and] you'll see how determined he was to save it and its legacy. This is a magazine that was ahead of its time — the idea of politics and celebrity going hand in hand is commonplace now [but] John had a clear vision for the future, though it might not have been entirely clear at the time.

Everyone has memories of JFK Jr. for different reasons — including me. I wrote for George and the very first review/column I wrote for Newsday was about a public TV project he was involved in. What are your memories? And what sort of consensus emerges from those you interviewed?

I remember a dashing, charismatic and vulnerable young man [and] I felt for him when he didn't pass the New York bar exam the first time around and when he seemed to be struggling to find love. We were all along for the ride in his life . . . Viewers will hear from friends and confidantes about how difficult it was for him to live in a fishbowl and how he handled it. Nearly all of them thought he was destined for great things, in politics or media."

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