All the President's Men: Lincoln on Film

Whether because of his achievements as a statesman or his distinctive mug (part uncle, part ostrich), Abraham Lincoln endures in Americans' collective imagination like no president before or after. According to IMDB's user-created character listings, Lincoln has been portrayed on screens large and small more times than any other president: 246 times, not counting video games (George Washington, a mere 127 times). The recent announcement that Daniel Day-Lewis will play the sixteenth president under Spielberg's direction is sure to inspire a whole new generation of actors to be fitted for stovepipe hats, just in case.

Lewis will find no shortage of inspiration for his work. He joins a distinctive league of performers who've each left a special imprint on the famous personage. In recent memory, Hank Azaria in “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” and Glenn Beck in “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.” (Calm down, take a few deep breaths: it was merely an actor of the same name.) In the world of “Futurama,” Lincoln has been voiced by three different actors and is sometimes a robot; on “The Simpsons” Dan Castellaneta himself tends to do the honors. Lance Henriksen starred in 1998's “The Day Lincoln Was Shot,” and Frank Langella did the honors on the Kunhardt Lincoln biography audiobook gig.

An odder phenomenon still – and one that Day-Lewis really ought to consider before plunging headlong into character – is that playing Lincoln can be habit-forming. Chris Sarandon played him three times in fifteen years (plus a filmed appearance at Lincoln Center, which ought to count for something). Hal Holbrook has periodically taken time off from appearing as Mark Twain to star as the Great Emancipator in television docudramas. Fritz Klein, a professional Abe impersonator, appears onscreen exclusively as Lincoln. A subset of actors have even parlayed their multiple Lincolnian engagements into roles as other presidents, real and fictional: Jason Robards went on to play Grant and FDR, and “Law and Order's” Sam Waterston has additional Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt credits – and is also a distant cousin of George Bush.

However, when it comes to pure, undiluted au de Abraham, none of these fellows can hope to touch the record set by Frank McGlynn Sr. After starring in John Drinkwater's Broadway play “Abraham Lincoln” in 1919, McGlynn became a hot ticket in Hollywood, donning presidential drag for fourteen separate screen roles between 1924 and 1939. In this scene from “The Littlest Rebel” – which DDL will surely memorize in coming months – McGlynn shares an apple with (and gently interrogates) seven-year-old Shirley Temple.

Historical re-enactment has been Lewis's bread and butter ever since “The Last of the Mohicans,” to the point where if you placed all his characters on a timeline and posited that they occupied the same fictional universe, their paths might plausibly intersect. But by punching his ticket at Ford's Theater, Lewis has launched his period acting cred to new heights, participating in a tradition as old as the moving picture itself. He is welcomed by an elite corps of hardworking professionals whose careers have all led them toward the same questions, the same lessons, the same facial hair. Look kindly upon them Daniel, for they are your new brothers. They are the few ... The proud ... The (other) Lincolns.

Looking for more on Lincoln? Check out the books below.

A. Lincoln | A Biography written by Ronald C. White, Jr.The Real Lincoln | A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War written by Thomas DiLorenzoLincoln | A Novel written by Gore VidalAngels and Ages | Lincoln, Darwin, and the Birth of the Modern Age written by Adam Gopnik

Lincoln Unmasked | What You're Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe written by Thomas DiLorenzoLincoln's Sword | The Presidency and the Power of Words written by Douglas L. WilsonIn Lincoln's Hand | His Original Manuscripts with Commentary by Distinguished Americans written by Harold Holzer and Joshua Wolf ShenkLincoln | A Life of Purpose and Power written by Richard Carwardine

Photos © PR Photos (Daniel Day-Lewis) and iStockphoto (Lincoln)

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  • Greg

    To me, Abraham Lincoln will always be Joe Flaherty:

  • Pahl Scharping

    I can't think of a better casting than this great actor playing Lincoln. I can hardly wait for this one!

  • Ken Braiterman

    I'm looking forward to this movie big time. Spielberg and Day-Lewis are in a league with John Ford and Henry Fonda, who made "Young Mr. Lincoln," a great movie that's still shown frequently,.

    My other favorite Hollywood Lincoln is Raymond Massey. "Young Mr. Lincoln" ends when Lincoln leaves Illinois to become President. Massey plays President Lincoln, and captures Lincoln's humor and melancholy, which has been diagnosed in hindsight as clinical depression.

    Story goes that when Ford asked Fonda to play Lincoln, Fonda said the role was too big and intimidating for him. Ford said, don't play The Great Emancipator. This is a movie about a young lawyer in Springfield, Ill. Playing it that way, they knocked it out of the park.

  • Confedvet

    Just what we need, another movie about the worst tyrant this country has ever seen.

    • Sandra Freeman


    • Walt

      "Just what we need, another movie about the worst tyrant this country has ever seen."

      Lincoln appears as tyrant to those who didn't want the laws enforced.


    • Jim

      Your comment is proof you know nothing about the history of that time.

  • Tim De Groot

    What happened to Liam Neeson? This film was rumored to be filming at least two years ago with "Rob Roy" as Lincoln.

  • Henry Crawford

    My favorite is Gregory Peck as Lincoln in "The Blue and the Gray." In my opinion his recitation of the Gettysburg Address is the best on film.

    • Nathan Phillips

      Gregory Peck was amazing. I couldn't help but think that he was Superman in To Kill a Mockingbird. Even when he played a villain he was larger than life. I hope Day Lewis is up to that kind of challenge.

  • Gary

    Yeah, today Lincoln would be a Democrat. He certainly wouldn;t be in today's Republican Party!

  • Greg Creech

    I love the books they recommend you read....BS. Want to know Lincoln? Try 2 books that are fully documented and not the starry-eyed propaganda everyone has been fed since April 15, 1865. Read "The Real Lincoln" and "Lincoln Unmasked"...both by Thomas DiLorenzo. The man was tyrant.

    "Every man should endeavor to understand the meaning of subjugation before it is too late... It means the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern schoolteachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the war; will be impressed by the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, and our maimed veterans as fit objects for derision... It is said slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all that our enemies are fighting for. It is merely the pretense to establish s...ectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties."...Major General Patrick Cleburne, CSA

    • George Cunningham

      Exactly!!! He didn't give a damn about the slaves. It was all about protecting the Merril Tarriff. A tax that was enriching the north at the south's expense. This movie will be nothing but more northern propaganda.

  • Ann Leach

    DiLorenzo failed as an economist, so he tried his hand at history. He sucks worse at history than he did at economics. He says in his first book that the battle of Fort Sumter was fought in May. Oh yes, what a brilliant man! Give me a break.

    If you want a book on Lincoln, try D.H. Donald's work "Lincoln". You might actually get to read some real scholarship by a real historian. Stay away from racists like DiLorenzo and his racists brothers of the closet Klux, known as the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

  • Michael Stephen Bryant

    The article mentions other's that have played Lincoln.Gregory Peck played Lincoln in The Blue And The Grey.I thought he by far was the best to ever play Lincoln.Is there any word on who will be handleing casting for the film?

  • Barb Schlichting

    Please check out my website to learn about the First Lady Mystery Series. In the ML book, the character is in search of Lincoln's Lost Speech, which propelled him into the White House.

  • Ken

    I cannot believe no one, not even the article has mentioned Henry Fonda as Lincoln in John Ford's immortal Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). Not only the best portrayal of Lincoln on film, it is one of Ford's best directing efforts, but also one of Fonda's greatest performances ever. Understated, funny, warm and American, Young Mr. Lincoln is tops.

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