Celebrate Presidents Day with a look at who have portrayed him in film and TV
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” That Abraham Lincoln quote sums up the quiet, thoughtful dignity that actors have tried to portray on film for several generations now. And on screen, the 16th president has done everything from meeting Shirley Temple to fighting vampires. In honor of President’s Day, here are some of the actors who have played Honest Abe over the years.
Joseph Henabery – “The Birth of a Nation” (1915)The racism in “The Birth of a Nation” aside, D.W. Griffith stages the assassination of Abraham Lincoln as a true national tragedy, and he does so in ravishing display, staging a scene everyone already knows but hadn’t yet visualized on film, using never before seen intercutting and sweeping wide shots as John Wilkes Booth dives from the balcony to provide ravishing tension and action.
Walter Huston – “Abraham Lincoln” (1930)D.W. Griffith would revisit the Lincoln legend in 1930 with “Abraham Lincoln,” which more closely follows the life of the president and culminates in his death. The film somewhat atoned for the other sins of “The Birth of a Nation,” and it was celebrated in its day. But it has been looked at less fondly in recent years for its historical inaccuracies. Walter Huston also portrayed Lincoln in a 1929 short film called “Two Americans,” about Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.
Frank McGlynn Sr. – “The Littlest Rebel” (1935)In “The Littlest Rebel,” Shirley Temple plays the daughter of a Confederate soldier during the Civil War. When he’s captured, Temple and Bojangles make a plea for his freedom directly to President Lincoln, with Lincoln sitting her right on the desk of the Oval Office. Lincoln doesn’t tap dance or anything here, but Franks McGlynn’s take on Lincoln certainly does love apples. Watch a clip here.
Henry Fonda – “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939)“You’re crazy! I can’t play Lincoln. That’s like playing God, to me,” Henry Fonda said in a 1975 interview. But director John Ford “shamed” him into doing it, saying, “You think it’s The Great Emancipator, huh? He’s a young, jack-legged lawyer from Springfield for Christ sake.” And in “Young Mr. Lincoln,” which charts Honest Abe’s humble roots in Illinois, Fonda plays Lincoln with calm, plain spoken, laid back aplomb absent all the pomp and circumstance.
Raymond Massey – “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (1940)Massey had become synonymous with the role of Abe Lincoln, having played him numerous times in his career, following his Oscar-nominated work in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois.” The film is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play, and Massey’s croaking baritone voice sounds closer to a Hollywood, idealized image.
Hal Holbrook – “Lincoln” (1974) and “North and South” (1985)Hal Holbrook is another institution who Hollywood turned to time and again to play Lincoln. He acted as Lincoln during the miniseries “Lincoln” in the 1970s and would win an Emmy for his work. Fittingly, Steven Spielberg found a part for him in his 2012 film “Lincoln.”
Gregory Peck – “The Blue and the Gray” (1982)Who better to deliver a stirring speech about how all men are created equal than Atticus Finch himself? Peck briefly appeared as Lincoln in the miniseries “The Blue and the Gray,” and here’s a clip of him nobly reciting the Gettysburg Address.
Robert V. Barron – “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989)”Be excellent to each other, and… party on dudes!” Truer words have never been spoken. Watch the clip here.
Jason Robards – “The Perfect Tribute” (1991)Jason Robards played Lincoln three times: first for a TV movie adaptation of “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” and then in 1991 and 1992 for two separate TV movies, including “The Perfect Tribute,” about how Lincoln came to write the Gettysburg Address.
Kris Kristofferson – “Tad” (1995)Lincoln was a lawyer from Illinois, not a singer from Texas. Kris Kristofferson is one of the stranger casting choices for this 1995 TV movie on The Family Channel, as told through the eyes of Lincoln’s son.
Benjamin Walker – “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (2012)And you thought D.W. Griffith took liberties with history. Somehow, Timur Bekmabetov made it such that Benjamin Walker wouldn’t look half as badass if he weren’t twirling an axe and cutting down demons without his stove pipe hat.
Daniel Day-Lewis – “Lincoln” (2012)Like Fonda, Daniel Day-Lewis taps into the more relaxed aspects of Lincoln’s persona, even showcasing a softer side to Day-Lewis’ intense method acting. Steven Spielberg highlights the sanctity of the democratic process in “Lincoln” and how Honest Abe’s wise presence allowed him to broker such a landmark victory for democracy. The film is at its best when Lincoln isn’t giving grand speeches but is being a father and revealing the humanity behind the iconic leader.
Billy Campbell – “Killing Lincoln” (2013)Billy Campbell portrayed Lincoln in the National Geographic biography based on Bill O’Reilly’s book.
Michael Krebs – “Timeless” (2016)Michael Krebs has seven acting credits to his name dating back to 1994, and he’s played Lincoln in all of them, taking advantage of his spitting resemblance on screen and stage. He most recently starred in an episode of the series “Timeless.”
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