Lincoln actors

by Bill Monson

Occasionally, people ask me where I get my ideas for these ''reflections.'' Well, I got this column at a rummage sale.

That's right -- at the Methodist Women's rummage sale. For 50 cents I bought an old LP of ''Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln'' as produced for Walt Disney's Audio-Animatronics exhibit in the Illinois Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York. The exhibit was built around a lifelike mannequin of our 16th President, which actually moved and spoke. The exhibit was later moved to Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., where it continued to contribute to the Lincoln legend for millions of visitors.

The record I bought was in pristine shape (it probably had not been played much) and as I listened to the voice of actor Royal Dano as Lincoln, a column was born.

Lincoln is not an easy character for any actor to play. First is the incredible growth he showed between boyhood and the Presidency. Second, because of all the pictures of him, the biographies and stories about him (including the excellent ''Honor's Voice'' by Douglas Wilson of Knox College), and the writings he left behind, we all have some idea in our mind of what he looks like and how he should sound. Finally, there are all the portrayals of him in films and on television.

The first movie with national impact was ''Abraham Lincoln'' made by the great American director D. W. Griffith in 1930. It starred Walter Huston (John's dad, Angelica's grandfather) and he captured something of the wit and spirit of Lincoln; but the movie was one of Griffith's weaker efforts and one critic says it ''embalms rather than immortalizes Lincoln.''

Most people of my generation consider the definitive portrayal of Lincoln to be that of Raymond Massey, a Canadian, who appeared as Abe in Robert Sherwood's ''Abe Lincoln in Illinois'' both on the Broadway stage in 1938 and in a 1939 movie. Massey had the looks and voice to convince an audience he was both a frontier rustic and a polished politician, but he always struck me as just a bit too erudite, too studied in his portrayal. In his movie, however, he had the opportunity to work opposite the best Mary Todd Lincoln -- Ruth Gordon.

In that same year, up-and-coming Hollywood star Henry Fonda presented another version of Lincoln in John Ford's ''Young Mr. Lincoln.'' As did the Massey film, it concentrated on Lincoln's Illinois years, but Fonda's Lincoln was one of lassitude and melancholy. Furthermore, it was handicapped by the script's characterization of young Lincoln. In attempting to inject drama, it highlighted the ''Buff'' Armstrong murder case of 1858 -- when Abe was 49, already nicknamed ''Odd Abe,'' and a polished railroad lawyer and politician -- but turns him into a straw-chewing, gallus-tugging young rustic. Fonda's Nebraska twang serves the character well -- but the Ford/Fonda Lincoln is more myth than reality.

Royal Dano was probably chosen for

Disney's Lincoln because he had played the part on stage and screen, possessed an excellent voice for the part -- and was much less expensive than Massey. James Agee wrote a Lincoln film used on ''Omnibus'' -- a rare arts show on commercial television -- in which Dano won critical plaudits. My memory of it, however, is more negative than positive. Though he possessed the lean and ugly look of Lincoln, Dano's version was too lugubrious, too prematurely mournful -- a quality he brought to many of the characters he played in movies like ''The Red Badge of Courage'' and TV shows like ''Gunsmoke.''

A good character actor, he did not quite capture the liveliness and spirit that Lincoln possessed -- the warmth and fun that made people enjoy his company.

Hal Holbrook, better known for his Mark Twain one-man show, gave Lincoln a try in the mini series ''North and South'' I & II in 1985 and 1986. He, too, was able to capture the rustic qualities of Lincoln; but he was only a minor character in the series and never had a chance to develop a full portrayal.

Sam Waterston, now doing Jack McCoy on NBC's ''Law and Order'', also tackled the role -- in 1988's ''Gore Vidal's ''Lincoln''' with Mary Tyler Moore as a very satisfactory Mary Todd Lincoln. However, all I remember of Waterston's Lincoln is a wild head of hair, an irritating voice, and a performance which managed to be both studied and antic at the same time.

The most incredible casting for a Lincoln portrayal I ever heard or saw was probably that of Rod Steiger which I encountered while I was at Armed Forces Radio and Television. I was asked to do promos for a Civil War Centennial special which turned out to be Steiger. A radio ''Method Lincoln'' surprisingly well-done if you could forget your memories of ''Marty.'' His accent, however, was more ''In the Heat of the Night'' Mississippi than Kentucky.

All in all, Lincoln was just too complex to be be captured by any writer or actor in a single movie or TV show -- which means we will have more attempts at capturing his fascinating character and place in American history -- a not unpleasant expectation for those of us from The Land of Lincoln.

Uploaded to The Zephyr website May 8, 2002

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