Abraham Zapruder’s amateur footage of the John F. Kennedy assassination is one of the world’s most instantly recognizable clips. Zapruder himself doesn’t get quite as much press, so let’s take a look at five things you might not know about the cameraman and the odd journey his film has taken.
1. He Wasn’t a Professional Cameraman
Most of us remember Zapruder as the man behind the most famous home movie of all time, but he wasn't a professional filmmaker. His real work was in the dress game.
Zapruder, who had immigrated to New York from the Ukrainian city of Kovel as a teenager, found work in the garment industry and eventually opened Jennifer Juniors in Dallas. His offices were in the Dal-Tex building located across the street from the Texas School Book Depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shots at the presidential motorcade.
2. He Didn’t Even Want to Take His Camera
The famous film might not even exist if not for the persistence of Zapruder’s secretary.
Zapruder had originally planned on bringing his camera, a Bell & Howell Director Series Model 414 Zoomatic, to work with him to film the motorcade. When he woke up on the morning of the assassination, though, he thought it was too gloomy outside to get decent footage, so he left the camera at home.
By midday the weather had brightened up, and Zapruder’s secretary convinced him that it was worth the trouble to go home and retrieve the camera. Zapruder eventually relented. He then headed out to Dealey Plaza to find a good place to film.
Tourist Stands Where Zapruder Filmed. © Barbara Davidson/Dallas Morning News/Corbis
3. The Film Earned Him a Lot of Money
Zapruder quickly contacted authorities and let them know that he had footage of the assassination. Since Oswald had been taken into custody relatively quickly, it didn’t seem that the film would have all that much value to any investigation. The Secret Service and FBI asked Zapruder for copies, but they told him the original was his. Whether he kept the film or sold it was up to him.
Zapruder was open to selling the footage, but he wanted to make sure it ended up in the hands of a group that would treat it with dignity. (Zapruder later revealed having nightmares about exploitation theaters showing the film for a quick buck.) Life magazine swooped in and bought the print rights of the film for $50,000. The magazine then realized that it would be smart to buy all of the rights, so it renegotiated a deal in which Zapruder would receive six annual payments of $25,000 in exchange for the print and motion picture rights.
Zapruder didn’t hoard the money, though. His lawyer worried that the story of a Jewish man cashing in on the assassination might incite anti-Semitic sentiment around Dallas, so Zapruder gave the first $25,000 payment to the widow of policeman J.D. Tippit, one of Oswald’s other victims.
4. His Family Got the Film Back…
The American public got its first look at the full film when ABC’s Good Night America (with Geraldo Rivera) ran it as part of a March 1975 broadcast. The next month Time Inc. sold the copyright and the original film back to the Zapruder family for $1. (Abraham Zapruder had died of stomach cancer in 1970.)
Zapruder’s family really capitalized on the film after reacquiring the copyright. His son rented the film out for one-time viewings, and although estimates of the exact fee vary, Oliver Stone allegedly paid at least $40,000 to use the footage in his film JFK.
5. …and Then Lost It Again
A 1997 decision by the Assassination Records Review Board took the original copy out of the Zapruder family’s hands. As an important artifact of the assassination, the film itself became a permanent part of the National Archives’ Kennedy Collection. (According to a New York Times story that ran when the film changed hands, it had become so fragile after years of viewings and copying that the original could no longer be projected for fear of damaging it.) The National Archives had already had physical possession of the film for nearly 20 years; the family had given it to the Archives in 1978 for safekeeping.
The Justice Department actually had the task of acquiring the film and compensating the Zapruder family for its loss, and that’s where things got interesting. The government offered $1 million. The Zapruder family countered that since it was a one-of-a-kind relic, it should be valued more like a Van Gogh painting. Their counteroffer: $30 million. After a couple of years of haggling, a federal arbitration panel awarded the Zapruders a $16 million payment for the film in 1999.
That fee only paid for the physical copy of the film, though. The Zapruder family maintained ownership of the copyright. Not for long, though. On December 30, 1999, the family donated the copyright, along with its collection of films and photographs, to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.