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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Acting Presidents

As I was watching How the West Was Won (in glorious Cinerama!) for the first time a couple of weeks ago, I found myself intrigued by how many superstars of the time they were able to assemble in one cast. And, indeed, how some really big stars, like John Wayne, had virtual cameos that lasted just a few minutes.

One of these was Raymond Massey, who momentarily and silently reprises his (title) role from 22 years earlier in Abe Lincoln in Illinois. I couldn’t help but wonder if Massey (who was born in Canada and who made more than 50 movies, later becoming known as Dr. Gillespie on TV’s Dr. Kildare) was happy to don the Lincoln costume again or if he felt typecast, like the way Leonard Nimoy at one time felt trapped in the role of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.

He was probably okay with it because, after all, it certainly didn’t hurt his acting career. He went on to star in a lot of other high-profile films, like The Fountainhead and East of Eden. But, for whatever reason, I (and probably a lot of other people) automatically associate Massey with the Great Emancipator. Maybe it’s because one of my earliest television memories of is the old Dick Van Dyke Show in which Van Dyke, upon identifying a rare old photograph of Lincoln, exclaims, “It’s the real Raymond Massey!”

Anyway, that got me to thinking about other actors eternally associated with real-life historical figures. A lot of actors get typecast as a particular character or a particular type of character, but there seems to be a subset of this phenomenon where the actor is forever identified with an actual real person that he or she has portrayed. The most extreme case may (or may not) be Hungarian-born Bela Lugosi, who was tragically locked into the role of, depending on your point of view, the historical figure Vlad the Impaler or the fictional villain Count Dracula. And Don Ameche’s close association with his 1939 portrayal of Alexander Graham Bell was a gag line for years.

But you don’t have to go that far back in history to find this sort of mental connection. Not too awfully long ago I was talking with my friend Dayle about the movie Pleasantville and she made a reference to “Pat Nixon” pleasuring herself in the bathtub. Now, of course, former First Lady Thelma “Pat” Nixon wasn’t actually in that movie, but I knew immediately to whom she was referring. Apparently, I am not the only one who cannot see the talented actor Joan Allen without immediately thinking of Pat Nixon, the role she played in Oliver Stone’s over-the-top reinterpretation of modern history, Nixon. This wasn’t a particularly great film and Allen’s part was not a lot bigger than the rest of the ensemble cast’s, and yet to this day that is the one role she has played that is indelibly etched in my mind. It probably has something to do with the fact that Allen just plain looks like Pat Nixon, and she has a certain reserve or stiffness about her not unlike that of the former President’s wife. It was just too perfect a match between actor and role.

Anthony Hopkins certainly did a bang-up job in the (pardon the expression) tricky title role of that film, but I hardly ever look at him and think of Richard Nixon. I guess it’s because he had to use a lot of tricks to create the illusion. Allen, seemingly, just had to be herself.

As it happens, much of my mental typecasting of actors seems to center around chief executives. For a long time I couldn’t see William Devane without thinking of John F. Kennedy, since the first place I noticed him as an actor was in the made-for-television docu-drama The Missiles of October. And he really does bear some strange resemblance to JFK. (The same was true, for a brief time only, with Martin Sheen, who played Bobby Kennedy in that production. Interestingly, Sheen has since been promoted to the top office as a fictional President on TV’s The West Wing.) And, to this day, I can’t see Edward Hermann or (to a lesser extent) Jane Alexander without immediately thinking of their portrayals in two 1970s mini-series about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Again, like Joan Allen, they just look the parts that they were playing.

And, of course, no discussion of actors and the presidency would be complete without mentioning Ronald Reagan. So there. I’ve mentioned him.

All of this, I suppose, raises the unavoidable question: what actor will someday be typecast in the inevitable movie about Bill Clinton? For some reason, when I look at Clinton, I get reminded of character actor Charles Durning. But even the President’s most ardent detractors would have to concede that Durning is probably too old and a tad too heavy-set for the role. New Zealand-born Russell Crowe’s physical transformation for The Insider suggests that he might be able to handle the part. As for Hillary, there is no question. It has to be Hope Davis (the love interest in Mumford), who looks so much like the First Lady that she would definitely be typecast in the role forever. If they want a bigger name, Sharon Stone could probably fill the bill as well. In fact, they could even do a Basic Instinct reunion by also casting Michael Douglas (who has already played a Chief Executive experiencing travails on the dating scene in The American President) as Bill.

-S.L., 15 June 2000

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