Sam Waterston, well-known to many for his numerous television and acting credits, starred on TV for 16 years as District Attorney Jack McCoy on Law & Order. An Emmy and Golden Globe winner, Waterston is also acclaimed for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, a role that seems an ideal fit for the tall, lanky actor—who has cultivated a Lincolnian accent. In fact, Waterston’s voice as Lincoln can currently be heard on PBS stations in reruns of Ken Burns’ The Civil War.
How did you first get involved in doing Abraham Lincoln’s voice?
I started in Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, which was originally written as an idea for a television series. They turned him down, and he said: “OK, I’m going to write it as a book, and when it’s a bestseller, you’re going to have to pay a whole lot more for the rights for TV”—and that’s exactly what happened. I had a citizen’s knowledge of Lincoln, the Civil War, etc., but no particular expertise. But I wanted to play the part because I was tall and ugly and I thought there ought to be a reward for being born that way. I’m not as tall as Lincoln and maybe a shade less plain, but I really wanted to do it. That led to voicing Lincoln in Ken Burns’ The Civil War and to Lincoln in Illinois at Lincoln Center. In the course of all that I became friends with Harold Holzer, who developed programs like Lincoln Seen and Heard.
Could you explain the Lincoln Seen and Heard presentations?
Basically it’s photographs of Lincoln from the time in which he gave a major speech, with Holzer framing the historical period and what gave rise to it and an actor, like me, performing the speech. Ideally the screen that the photos are projected on is very large and Harold and I are very small in proportion. You hear his words while you look at his face. It’s really evocative.
Has all this inspired you to read Lincoln on your own time?
I do have an enduring interest in Lincoln. When I have to do anything related to politics or the refugee situation (I’m on the board of Refugees International), Lincoln has something pertinent to say about practically anything I’m ever called on to speak about.
Is there any one site that’s helped you get into the spirit of Lincoln?
For atmosphere, the Lincoln Memorial is one of the most powerful places in D.C. I’ve dragged my wife there on numerous occasions around midnight, so I could read out loud the speeches carved on its walls. It sort of makes the floors tremble, it’s so powerful.
Do you ever visit battlefields?
When we shot Vidal’s Lincoln in Richmond, I was within spitting distance of several battlefields. I’ve been to Gettysburg, but just driving around in Virginia there are markers and earthworks everywhere. Of course, Richmond itself is a potent site.
What sort of research did you do for your role as Lincoln?
When I knew I was going to do Vidal’s Lincoln, I went to the Library of Congress. A nice woman came over and said: “You look lost. Can I help you?” and I said, “I was wondering if you had anything here about Lincoln.” She said, “As a matter of fact, we are the Lincoln presidential library. May I ask why you’re interested?” I replied, “Well, I’m going to be playing him on TV.”
That must have gotten her attention.
Yes. She mustered half a dozen people who gave me a crash course on what was in the library. They showed me things in his own hand, letters, a cast of his hand and lots of photos.
They also introduced me to someone in the audio/archives department who gave me tapes of characters recorded in the 1930s, with speculation on how Lincoln might have sounded. That’s where I got the accent I used.
Did you see any Lincoln artifacts?
That was the capper: We went down into the basement, and the man I was with told me, “Hold out your hands.” And he put the contents of Lincoln’s pockets in my hand—the contents of his pockets on the night he was shot.
Was there a pocketknife?
There was. There was a pair of glasses that folded up that Billy Herndon [Lincoln’s law partner] had given up. There was a watch fob, a billfold, some Confederate money. There were some negative reviews by Southern newspapers.
That must have been an incredibly powerful moment for you.
It was. It’s like the battlefields, the kind of thing that brings the past into the present in a fantastic way. It’s the reason to preserve things from the past, as far as I’m concerned, because it’s a direct connection.
Do you think holding those items helped you portray the president?
I hope it did, but I don’t know. It was a very electric thing. But whether or not it made me a better actor, I have no idea.
What’s your favorite Lincoln document or text?
I’ve read the Gettysburg Address a number of times. It’s a wonderful conundrum to try to get it all, because it’s full of balanced sentences repeated, the same words used again and again with different emphases. To try to get all the sense and pith in a single reading is like trying to do “To be or not to be” and putting it away. It’s a beautiful piece of writing designed to be spoken, so that’s great fun to do. Of course, Harold Holzer also wrote a book about the Cooper Union speech.
You’ve actually done that speech in the Cooper Union, haven’t you?
That was great fun and a big surprise to me—and I think to Harold too and the experts in the field. Because it’s rich in irony, and when you read it in front of a crowd, the humor comes out. It’s a very serious speech, of course, but it has humor in it. That’s great speech writing.
What’s your favorite venue?
I don’t know. We did Lincoln Seen and Heard at the White House during the Iraq War. During the Mexican War, Lincoln gave a powerful speech in Congress about words of choice. It has a lot of meaning, reading it in the White House in front of all those people.
What reactions did you get?
Well, that speech was balanced by speeches about perseverance and staying the course; I think those resonated more comfortably with the audience than the Mexican War speech. But insofar as Lincoln spoke, he spoke plainly and truthfully. It feels to me like a challenge to any politician to meet that standard.
Do you anticipate more appearances during the war’s 150th anniversary?
I think I’m last year’s Lincoln, because Daniel Day Lewis is slated to play the part in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming biopic. And I think it’s time to stop, because if I were Lincoln, I’d be long dead. Which reminds me of a great story. When we were doing Vidal’s Lincoln, I was talking to a man in a field hospital while they were setting up the next shot. He was a reenactor, with uniforms for both sides. But he had an accent from the South that you could cut with a knife. After awhile he grinned at me and said, “You know, if you were who you are pretending to be, I would be the man who would shoot you.” Then we both laughed.
So no, I don’t think I’ll be performing Abraham Lincoln much more. But never say never.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.