Assassins Shooting Gallery: Meet the Players and the Plotters

By Ernio Hernandez
and Kenneth Jones
23 Nov 2012

Jeffrey Kuhn (inset Zangara) and Michael Cerveris (Booth)

 

Character:

Assassin: Giuseppe Zangara
(aka Joseph Zangara)
Born: September 7, 1900, in Ferruzzano, Italy
Before he was an assassin: Bricklayer
Other jobs: Menial laborer
Assassination Attempt: President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 15, 1933, at Bayfront Park in Miami, Florida

Why he became an assassin: Riddled with stomach pains he blamed on his father, Zangara previously plotted to kill King Victor Emmanuel III because the Italian government would not help him punish his father. After emigrating to the United States, he underwent an appendectomy (which did not alleviate his suffering). The onset of The Great Depression worsened his condition. Zangara decided to kill President Herbert Hoover, but changed targets after Roosevelt won the election.



Died: March 20, 1933, in the electric chair at the Florida State Penitentiary. He was sentenced to death in the electric chair after the death of Mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak — who was hit by one of the five bullets Zangara fired in his failed attempt on FDR. At sentencing, he yelled to the judge, "You give me electric chair. I no afraid of that chair! You one of capitalists. You is crook man too. Put me in electric chair. I no care!"

Last Words: "Lousy capitalists! No picture! Capitalists! No one here to take my picture. All capitalists lousy bunch of crooks. Go ahead. Push the button!"

 

Played by:

Actor: Jeffrey Kuhn
Born: October 10, 1969, in St. Clements, Ontario
Before he was in Assassins: Broadway: Ragtime; Other: Off-Broadway in Floyd Collins, original Canadian company of The Lion King
Other jobs: None, left drama school to join Stratford Festival company

Why he became an actor: "I think of myself as being, in many ways, a shy person. A lot of people would find that difficult to believe, but I always felt like a very shy kid and I always felt timid about expressing who I was and what I had to say. So, I think it was intoxicating and powerful to assume the mantle of somebody else and feel like I was given license to become something else.

On research for playing Zangara:
"I've had the good fortune that there's been a book published relatively recently about him, which gives a lot of information that previously would have been difficult to look up. So, that's been immensely helpful so far. And actually, in the process of writing his book, they discovered some of his diaries that he kept in prison. So that's interesting and gives me a little bit of insight to how he thought and how he expressed himself.
Probably the most surprising thing to me is that so many people said he was kind-hearted and sort of jovial and almost light-hearted. Which, of course, is juxtaposed with these moments of extreme rage and anger. I didn't expect that. I expected that he was probably a darker, moodier soul all around. But many people said that he was very articulate and calm and verbose and genial. And then he could turn if the topic turned to something political."

On being a political person:
"I think one of the things that attracts me to [Zangara's] story and attracts me to Assassins, in particular, is that, although [I had] a completely different experience, I'm an immigrant to the United States myself. So, I feel that my views as an person observing a political system of which I can't be an active participant gives me an individual, outsider viewpoint. That resonates with me very much when I think of him feeling very much on the outside, choosing to live within a structure that he felt really didn't embrace him, or that he had no place in. Of course, I don't feel the same way he did. And I couldn't be more anti-death penalty."

 

***

 

Character:

Assassin: John Wilkes Booth
Born: May 10, 1838, near Bel Air, Maryland
Brother: Actor Edwin Booth (for whom Broadway's Booth Theatre is named)
Before he was an assassin: Actor
Other jobs: Farm hand, Oil investor
Assassinated: President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Why he became an assassin: A diehard advocate of the South's cause, Booth previously plotted a failed attempt to kidnap Lincoln in exchange for the release of Confederate prisoners. Weeks later, General Robert E. Lee's surrender to the Union coupled with Lincoln's granting voting rights to blacks drove Booth to formulate another plan with conspirators, this time to kill Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Only Booth's part of the mission was completed, with the actor screaming "Sic Semper Tyrannis" ("Thus Always to Tyrants" - Virginia's state motto).

Died: April 26, 1865, on the porch of Richard Garrett's house near Port Royal, Virginia, after being discovered at his hideout. After several hours of trying to draw him out alive, soldiers set fire to the barn where he was. But a sergeant, seeing him through a crack, took aim and shot him in the neck. He died hours later after claiming he did it "for his country."

Last Words: [Looking at his hands] "Useless, useless."

 

Played by:

Actor: Michael Cerveris
Born: November 6, 1960, in Bethesda, Maryland (grew up in Huntington, West Virginia)
Brother: Actor Todd Cerveris (Broadway's Twentieth Century)
Before he was in Assassins: Broadway: The Who's Tommy, Titanic; Off-Broadway: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Fifth of July, Wintertime
Other jobs: Waiter, FAO Schwarz Window Display, Collator.
"I waited tables in any number of New York restaurants and I did window display at Christmas time at FAO Schwarz once. And the most bizarre job I had was — I guess this was before collating Xerox machines were every place — I worked for a week with eight other people walking around a table stacked with piles, each pile was a different page of this document. We just walked around in circles for eight hours a day... after a while you start to get dizzy and disoriented. But it paid well and, of course, everybody else were actors, too."

Why he became an actor: "There are a lot of good comic answers, you know: lack of any real ability to do anything; seemed more appealing than getting a real job. But, I think the truth of it is as I was growing up — all through school, through high school, through college — I explored everything else. I kind of resisted the idea that I would be an actor even though I had started doing things at a young age at Webster Groves College in St. Louis, just as the kid in the university productions of you know Caucasian Chalk Circle or whatever. When you start out with Brecht, what hope do you have?
It just became clear over time as much as I was fascinated by and interested in other things, and I think quite possibly could have been happy doing any one of them, when I walked into a theatre and when I went on stage, I really felt a sense of place and sense of home there. And that seemed to be a place that I belong.The nice thing now is that I have my music stuff to do in between times, so I have something that I'm really excited by and creatively satisfied by when I'm not actually working."

On research for playing Booth:
"My brother, a friend and my girlfriend gave me copies of Booth's book of letters called 'Right or Wrong, God Judge Me' and several other people have given me other books and research materials. My brother actually has written a one-person show that he's been developing for a few years about John Wilkes and [his brother] Edwin Booth, so he has a great deal of material amassed for that.
I think the most interesting thing I've discovered so far was that Lincoln was an extremely controversial and largely unpopular president at that particular moment in history. I just sort of assumed he always kind of had the reputation and the position that he has now, but I've learned that that wasn't at all true. It makes it much easier to believe that as distorted as his reasons were, [Booth] wasn't crazy. He wasn't insane. He saw himself as a patriot. And as we see these days, a lot of violent and questionable things are done in the name of patriotism. It makes him much more of a complex person than just an evil lunatic.

On being a political person:
"I would say that I am. I think I'm not as educated as I feel I ought to be and would like to be, but I think I've grown increasingly political over the last five years or so. I'm constantly battling with feeling apathetic in the face of disillusionment with the political system and the way things seem to be going lately. At times, you just want to turn off the TV completely and just ignore it all which, of course, is not the best response. I found myself getting very involved in the peace marches and things last February and took a lot of hope and heart from those events.

On the parallels between the Booth and Cerveris acting brothers:
"Hopefully it won't end as badly as it did for those two."

 Continued...