Hail to the Chief: Richard Thomas, Stacy Keach and More Discuss Their Presidential Portrayals On the Stage

By Stuart Miller
17 Feb 2014

Thomas, along with director Molly Smith and Wright, must figure out "how far we want to go with gestures toward a likeness in physical and vocal characteristics." He said he wants to avoid "impersonation," but he knows there are specific cadences and vocal traits he needs to capture. Thomas feels like Carter's informal and intimate speaking style makes him easier to portray on a human scale than orators like Kennedy and Roosevelt, adding, "Hopefully after ten minutes people won't be worrying about how I'm playing Carter and will just be caught up in the drama of the show."

Fifty years ago Fritz Weaver played six presidents in The White House, including Lincoln, Jackson, Wilson, Franklin Pierce and Thomas Jefferson, but he particularly enjoyed portraying Millard Fillmore. "It's not likely anyone will ever play Fillmore on stage again," he said, "but dramatically he was the most interesting, a drunk and a doomed man. He was very human."

Weaver had to shift characterizations on the fly, pushing his hair up and lengthening his arms for Jackon, for instance. "I did a lot of reading —everything you know about someone works into what you are doing, even if not directly," he said. "The literature isn't as voluminous on Pierce as on Jackson but reading is all you've got."

Weaver said the play, coming on the heels of the Kennedy assassination, was the end of an era of "real veneration" toward both the man and the role of president. "Since then, for instance, Wilson's reputation has diminished and Jackson — well, genocide tends to hurt your reputation."

The one true hero was Lincoln, and Weaver, who had admired the 16th president since childhood, felt intimidated. He tried, then abandoned a vocal approach similar to what Daniel Day-Lewis would later use in the movie "Lincoln," adding, "That didn't work for me." (A decade later, Weaver played Lincoln in a one-man show but felt the script "didn't get at the heart of the man.")

The most helpful advice came from Helen Hayes, who was playing ten First Ladies in the show. "I gave one of Lincoln's speech and when I came off Helen was standing in the wings, glowering. She said, 'You mustn't milk it so much; he was a simple man.'"

Douglas Sills turned down one iconic president but took on another. After he was asked to play Ronald Reagan in a one-man show he visited the Reagan library, did a "great deal of research" and even worked with a famous make-up artist to get the right look. But after a long internal debate, he said no. "I've never said no to a role for personal reasons but there was too much evil in his administration, and I couldn't get past the whitewashing in the script. It was enshrining him."

However, Sills loved the challenge of playing the private and morally compromised John Kennedy in Ride the Tiger at the Long Wharf, even though it meant getting naked, dying his hair and tackling that iconic delivery. "I took the role because of the cold, ferocious fear of that challenge," he said. "There was undeniably a ghost in the room when it's a president the public remembers."