A Legacy of Lincolns: A Look at the Actors Who've Portrayed the President
If there’s anything Hollywood loves, it’s a rousing story with plenty of drama that can be bent and crafted to mean just about anything. If the story happens to come from real life and if people are already familiar with that story, all the better as that cuts the movie’s job in half. There’s plenty of things to like about Abraham Lincoln’s story, as it’s kind of the American Dream incarnate. Poor boy makes good, becomes president and happens to put an end to one of the cruelest institutions in history in the midst of a huge battle that still seems to be in contention throughout parts of the South today. Much of our great art is born of dwelling on the Civil War, from “Gone With the Wind” to much heartier fare such as Drunk History’s take on Lincoln meeting with Fredrick Douglass.
I mostly wanted to show this clip from “Holiday Inn” which is a perfectly wonderful movie starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, but in this little bit ol’ Bing dresses up in blackface to sing a song about the man who freed the slaves. Stick around or fast forward to the half-way mark in order to see… well, to say would ruin the surprise, suffice it to say, it’s worth taking a gander at and imagining this sort of thing being floated as an idea today. “You know what’d be great, if everyone put on blackface and we sang a song about slavery.”
There’s been a whole passel of men dedicated to playing the president, and kind of on a whim I went over to IMDB and started poking around to see if there were any standouts. I learned a little bit about the history of movies, a little bit about Lincoln and a whole lot about myself.*
(*note: I did not learn that much about myself other than that I like looking at pictures of people dressed up as Lincoln, and that, yes, I still love doing research that involves having at least 30 browser tabs open, divided between IMDB, Wikipedia, Google image search and beyond.)
IMDB lists at least 327 movies with Abraham Lincoln as a character, the earliest is 1911, though there were certainly more, and I’d have to do actual research to dig those up, so let’s just pretend for today it started in 1911. The one that caught my eye is saucily titled “Lincoln, the Lover” (1914), starring the first standout Lincoln, Ralph Ince. Ince directed over 171 films in the very earliest days of cinema, and gained notoriety as Lincoln from about 1906 to his last appearance in “The Highest Law” (1921).
The next notable Lincoln is Benjamin Chapin, who had a full-time career as a Lincoln impersonator on and off the stage, and appeared in many short films from 1917-1918. The best titled one is “Tender Memories” followed closely by “My First Jury.”
We move on into the ’30s with D.W. Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln.” Griffith had a knack for broad, sweeping drama and this version certainly has its problems from what I’ve read on various sites, but Walter Huston’s appearance is spot on.
The actor Frank McGlynn Sr. played Abraham Lincoln in at least ten films, from 1915-1939, but is particularly well-known for “The Littlest Rebel” (1935) with Shirley Temple. The film was well-recieved, with the New York Times calling it “an eventful slice of meringue…” Rumor has it that Margaret Mitchell wrote scenes of her book Gone With The Wind modeled after some parts of “The Littlest Rebel” as she was a huge Temple fan and went to the movies all the time. (In fact, I believe she was killed crossing the street in front of a theater on her way to a movie. I shall not tempt fate by considering how many times I am in the same situation as a film critic)
While there was a hodgepodge of performances throughout the ’40s and beyond, nobody took the crown in the 1950s and ’60s, though in 1965 “Doctor Who” had an episode featuring Lincoln, and actors such as James Griffith, Austin Green and Ford Rainey (on through the ’70s for Rainey) each portrayed the famous man in a handful of films and television shows each. I couldn’t find any good pictures, so here’s a picture of Ford Rainey, and just pretend it’s from a movie about Lincoln.
Hal Holbrook made quite a good Lincoln, appearing as the man in a 1974 TV series about Lincoln, as well as as Lincoln in the 1985 TV series North and South. Holbrook would of course go on to be in the “Lincoln” (2012) movie as well, a line of Lincolns across the decades.
Gregory Peck took a turn as Lincoln in 1982, and I had no idea about that. I kind of want to watch the TV series in which he appeared as it seems like kind of a big deal.
Other famous faces who took a shot at the role in the following years include Kris Kristofferson, Jason Robards (several times over a span of 30 years), and Sam Waterston.
Sam Waterston. Ha ha ha.
Seems as if we got a few distinctive entries but it’s kind of hard to wade through the ’80s and ’90s. Interest in Lincoln surged again in recent years, there’s about a million parodies and animated shows that have him listed, as well as a spate of “Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies” type movies and of course, Benjamin Walker’s turn as the famous president in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” a movie that was so dumb but Walker… man, alive.
But, we all know who the best is, the Lincoln against all Lincolns will be Lincolned for years to come. Daniel Day-Lewis. Fun fact. DDL is married to Rebecca Miller, whose father, Arthur Miller was married to Marilyn Monroe for a time. Though none of their lives overlap, I like to think of Marilyn Monroe as Daniel Day-Lewis’ step-mother in law.
While Hollywood’s been giving us mixed messages about Lincoln in recent days, we can’t deny there’s an obsession with the president reaching back into the very earliest days of cinema, with a long legacy of men emulating one of America’s best. Now, get out there and right some wrongs in honor of Lincoln! Smack racism in the face! Abolish inequality in your own home! Or, just fight some zombies and vampires.
Amanda Mae Meyncke is on the Internet other places and on Twitter too. She didn’t pay attention enough in history class as she was often skipping out to see movies.