With the current spotlight on Lincoln actors Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones — all three of them up for Oscars on Sunday night, Feb. 24th — it’s easy to overlook the (now) 88-year-old Hal Holbrook, who plays Preston Blair, Sr., in the film. When Steven Spielberg signed the actor for this small part, he was honoring the hardy impersonator of Mark Twain and the 1976 winner of an Emmy Award for his lead role in the NBC mini-series “Sandburg’s Lincoln.”
By the time producer David Wolper cast him as Lincoln, Holbrook had already been famous for two decades. His tours as the curmudgeonly Twain had begun in the early 1950s, and by evoking his character on stage, Holbrook became an American institution.
But he fretted about being typecast for life as the warmly cynical sage in his signature white coat. In the 1960s he sought out other parts, and earned a turn as Lincoln in the 1963 off-Broadway revival of Robert Sherwood’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois.”
During that run, Ed Sullivan showcased him on CBS for Lincoln’s birthday. More than 10 million people tuned in as he performed the central Lincoln “speech” from the play, a monologue made memorable by Raymond Massey in the original theater production and in the 1940 film.
The real Lincoln never delivered this speech. It’s a medley drawn from several Lincoln pieces, with a few fictional twists to adapt it to the Depression and the fight against fascism in the 1930s. Here is a seven-minute clip of Massey’s film speech:
Reciting the speech on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1963 gave Holbrook instant credibility as a Lincoln interpreter, and it may have put him on David Wolper’s radar screen. A decade later, Wolper signed him to play “Sandburg’s Lincoln,” and the six 50-minute installments aired at irregular intervals from late 1974 to early 1976. (The show became available on DVD about two years ago.)
The series suffered from frequently wooden plots, static staging, and bland dialogue, but Holbrook’s physical appearance helped keep many viewers engaged. He didn’t look exactly like Lincoln, but that made him all the more intriguing.
Thanks to veteran make-up artist Charles Schram’s painstaking work — Holbrook sat motionless for three hours every morning as Schram applied seven rubber “appliances” to his face — Holbrook looked something like Lincoln. He looked enough like Lincoln to make a viewer wonder where exactly the likeness lay, and whether more of it might turn up in the next scene.
Drawing on his Mark Twain persona, Holbrook gave Lincoln a folksy, chatterbox personality that spiced up the undistinguished writing. This garrulous president was never at a loss for words. The scripts highlighted the downhome storyteller, the wheeler-dealer politician, the patient husband and father, and the resolute warrior who suffered the loss of every dead soldier. Left out of this mix were the quiet, contemplative, self-concealing man, and the writer of great passages on freedom and equality.
In the social and political tinderbox of the early-to-mid 1970s, with the American population split over Vietnam and race relations, “Sandburg’s Lincoln” avoided the subject of race, and barely mentioned the word “slavery.” It left aside the president’s famous words about equality and freedom. In a one-minute excerpt from the First Inaugural, Lincoln pleaded for national unity — knowing full well that obtaining it would require a minor miracle, the return of “the better angels of our nature.”
Carl Sandburg died in 1967. Had he lived to see “Sandburg’s Lincoln,” he’d have been shocked by its wholesale disregard of emancipation. The episode entitled “Unwilling Warrior,” which aired in September 1975, actually showed Lincoln arriving in Richmond, Virginia, on April 4, 1865, for his three-quarter-mile walk to the newly captured Confederate White House. Writing emancipation out of this historic moment required a diligent effort.
Describing the scene in Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Sandburg celebrated the dense crowds of “black folk, some silent and awe-struck, others turning somersaults and yelling with joy as though their voices and bodies could never tell what they wanted to tell… . As they reached hands toward him in greeting and salute,” Lincoln welcomed them to their first day of de facto freedom.
Holbrook’s Lincoln walks through deserted streets on his way to the Confederate White House. He doesn’t notice two black men cowering in a doorway, for they are too afraid to show themselves. Lincoln’s mind is focused on the imminent end of the fighting. Once ensconced in Jefferson Davis’s chair, and refreshed with a drink of water, he sighs gratefully, “it’s over.”
Sandburg would have winced at the series’ excising of emancipation from the moment of reunion. But he would have loved the main thread of “Sandburg’s Lincoln”: Hal Holbrook’s depiction of the savvy Midwestern politician who conquered the East and never forgot his roots in the West.