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

By Stuart Miller
17 Feb 2014

Spiner said he found his way into the role by thinking about Bobby Kennedy, another Massachusetts man known to have a touch of self-righteous indignation. "That willingness to get in someone's face was the key for me," Spiner said, adding that playing a Founding Father is easier than a modern president because there's no video or audio footage for audiences to compare with the performance.

Equally important was focusing on the genuine love between John and Abigail Adams, which softens the irascible character. Onstage Spiner had to write Abigail a letter every night. "I started out with realistic letters, asking after our children and telling her what was happening in Philadelphia," he said. "It helped keep me in character. But after about 85 shows I started clowning around and making up things about people in the audience. Every letter was posted backstage and afterward they were collected and sold to raise money for a cancer charity."

Laurence Luckinbill turned down David Susskind's offer for Lyndon Johnson, a one-man show because, like Spiner, he felt he wasn't right for the part ("I'm not 6'4" or from Texas") and because, like Sills, he didn't like the man. "I demonstrated to get him out of office because of Vietnam," he said.

But Susskind persisted and Luckinbill at least agreed to read the script in his office. "My dad ran a hardware store in Arkansas and dealt with farmers and hill country people and knew how to connect with them, and as soon as I started reading as Lyndon I heard my dad coming out of my mouth," he said.

Luckinbill began researching Johnson's inspiring legacy of domestic achievements and was graciously welcomed by Lady Bird Johnson to the family ranch. Gradually his opinion changed. His next battle was over the idea of makeup, which he originally fought "tooth and nail" but later appreciated for its transformational impact (though he said when he does the show informally these days, without any makeup, the script and his performance are enough to do the job).

After Johnson, Luckinbill also tackled Teddy Roosevelt, who presented a unique challenge — on the one hand audience members don't remember what the man sounded like, and on the other, the few recordings depict "a terrible speaker — he was choppy and rasping and shouting and he'd just reach for stuff that was crazed." Luckinbill knew he couldn't do the entire play that way "or people would leave in droves" so he had to figure out how to "show that he's a haranguer, then get to the story."

Luckinbill also continually tinkered with his scripts, adding more humor to the Johnson show. When Tweed Roosevelt came backstage to say the show didn't have enough about his great-grandfather's environmentalism, Luckinbill fixed it the very next night.

Luckinbill has long wanted to do a show about America's first president, exploring the man behind the mythological hero, the George Washington who owned slaves but freed them, who had a terrible temper, and who seemed to spend every battle in retreat. When he tried pitching it to theatres around the country he found surprisingly little interest. "I got only four bookings," he said. "It wasn't enough to mount the show."