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.
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