Making Lincoln come alive
Springfield’s Fritz Klein has been portraying Lincoln for more than 40 years. You’d swear he’s the man on the penny.
He’s been doing Lincoln almost as long as Lincoln did Lincoln.
“Lincoln died at 56, and how long has it been since I’ve been 56?” asked 69-year-old Fritz Klein of Jerome, one of the nation’s premier Abraham Lincoln interpreters, who’s been portraying the 16th president for nearly 42 years.
It’s no surprise that Klein’s full-time occupation is what’s known in the business as a “Lincoln presenter.” Look at the five-dollar bill and then look at Klein. You’d swear he’s the man on the penny.
When he walks into a room most of the children, and not a few adults, are convinced that Honest Abe has come back to life.
Klein has portrayed Lincoln up to five days a week with two programs per day and can average 250 performances in a year. He’s in high demand for movies, television and historic reenactments around the globe.
“I had been doing some bit parts on a very small local scale, and when the national bicentennial came up in 1976 I was cast in the role of Lincoln,” Klein said. “I thought it would just take one long weekend. And boy, it has been a long weekend!”
“When I was asked to take the role, I actually turned it down,” Klein said. “I was 28 years old and nobody had ever told me that I looked like Lincoln. The director was persistent though, and with my permission he sent a makeup artist to our home, and by the time she was finished with me four hours later, that’s the first time I realized I could do this.”
But it wasn’t enough to just resemble Lincoln. Klein decided to get to know the man he was going to portray. He started by visiting a local library in Hawaii and checking out Benjamin Thomas’ Abraham Lincoln: A Biography, which was published in the 1950s but is still highly regarded by Lincoln scholars. He also poured over The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.
The 1976 bicentennial performance led to encores and other requests, and finally in 1980 Klein made portraying Lincoln a full-time profession. He moved to Illinois in 1982 because the state offered the most opportunities for someone who portrayed Lincoln. At first Klein limited his portrayals to the word-for-word use of authentic Lincoln quotations, but as he got more comfortable, he improvised.
“It took the years of sticking entirely with Lincoln’s quotations to get familiar enough with the man,” Klein said. “If somebody in a very casual setting such as the Lincoln Home back yard asks me what I think of Great Britain, and I intend in that setting to stay in character, I can speak to that without quoting him at all but with a fairly reliable sense of competence that I am interpreting him correctly.
“Or something like the suspension of habeas corpus, people will ask me that kind of thing and they really want a conversational answer, they don’t want quotations,” Klein said.
The more he learned about Lincoln, the more Klein respected him, and that respect helps his portrayal of the Civil War president.
“One of the things I most respect about Lincoln is he tended to identify with the faults of people with whom he came into contact,” Klein said. “In one instance, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was upset with the number of boys who went AWOL from the Union Army. And Lincoln’s response was essentially, ‘I’m not sure that my cowardly legs wouldn’t carry my brave head away in a setting like that.’
“In his Temperance Speech back in his Illinois days he made some very astute observations about human nature,” Klein said. “He made it fairly clear that he was not looking down on people who were troubled with alcohol.
“So I began to take up the practice. When somebody would say something, and my initial response might be irritation, I now give it some thought, such as ‘do I do that, or what do I do that is very similar?’” Klein said. “It has helped me tremendously.”
Klein especially enjoys interpreting Lincoln in original Lincoln historic sites. He has greeted guests while eating a piece of pie in the kitchen exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, as though people have caught the president sneaking a snack. He has performed in the White House in Washington, D.C., and done the exact things Lincoln did there. A highlight of Klein’s career was the 150th anniversary in 2011 of Lincoln’s Inaugural journey, where he made a train whistle-stop tour and spoke in many of the original places where president-elect Lincoln spoke.
But there are also the touching moments, like the one Klein remembered from a kindergarten classroom visit.
“I try to say things that little kids can relate to, and I mentioned how hard it was to be brave when Lincoln was left home alone with his sister,” Klein said. “A little boy raised his hand and broke into tears when he told me his story. He said ‘I know what that’s like because I have to be home alone every day for hours and hours, and I get so afraid I cry.’ And he started crying there.
“That was just one of those tear-jerking moments that you never intend for something like that to happen, but it does sometimes,” Klein said.
Klein continues to refine his mannerisms and speech to emulate what is known about Lincoln and his era. Gentlemen in the 1800s held their hands certain ways, for instance, and whenever he’s asked to pose for photographs he tries to mimic the stiff look of people in period images.
“Lincoln was famous for his ‘pump handle’ handshake,” Klein said. “I do that cautiously, and I don’t do it with ladies, but if I feel it’s not a frail gentleman and somebody who may play the game a little and appreciate it, I will shake hands in a very decided, up-and-down motion, almost two feet of space between the lower and upper edges of my pumping. Almost invariably they start laughing when they realize that I am doing that.”
Klein’s interpretation of Lincoln’s distinctive voice is also the result of careful research.
“He was a very original man in many of the things he did, and that originality struck people forcibly in the way he phrased things,” Klein said. “They would write these things down sometimes phonetically. He would say ‘over thar’ instead of ‘over there,’ ‘fer’ instead of ‘for.’ So when I would find those things I started creating a file.”
“A really great resource is the interview that William Herndon did with Lincoln’s stepmother. Herndon, for all of his faults, did a masterful job of quoting Sarah Bush Lincoln phonetically,” Klein said. “And when you read it, and pronounce it the way that Herndon wrote it, it’s appalling! Really, people talked this way?! It makes Jed Clampett look like he had a college education.”
Klein can turn the authentic accent on and off like a faucet.
“If I do a voiceover or a video I will ask them, ‘do you want high corn, low corn or no corn?’” Klein said. “I did an entire film about a year ago where they wanted no accent at all. So I leave it up to the client sometimes if it’s going to be recorded.”
Klein can be so convincing as Abraham Lincoln that it helps those who portray other characters from the era. Pam Brown of Springfield has portrayed Lincoln’s wife, Mary, since 2007 and is often paired with Klein.
“Many times people have said we are believable as the Lincolns, and of course we often get the question, ‘Are you two really married?’” Brown said. “And we will teasingly say, ‘Of course we’re married. Just not to each other.’”
“Working with Fritz is delightful,” Brown said. “I’m an audible learner, so just working with him and listening to him talk on many occasions, I have learned so much about the Lincolns.”
Brown and Klein recently performed together in Message at Midnight at the Ulysses S. Grant Historic Site near St. Louis, a Ken Bradbury-written drama about Christmas Eve 1864 in the White House as the couple and Ulysses S. Grant (portrayed by Springfield resident Dennis Rendleman) await word from General William T. Sherman during the Civil War. She enjoys those type of scripted performances, but Brown also likes their unscripted interactions for the public.
“We know the people so well that it makes our interactions so much easier. We’ve done the research, so when we banter or tease each other it just becomes very real,” Brown said. “Sometimes Lincoln is put on such a high pedestal that he’s almost unreachable, so it’s nice when you see that comedic side, the silly side, because Fritz makes him like you, and he does that better than anybody I know.”
Klein’s toughest crowd is probably the many scholars who study every aspect and nuance of Lincoln’s life. But Klein has made fans of them as well, including James Cornelius, the Lincoln Curator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
“I have never seen anyone better at presenting Lincoln in his own words, or in the voice that we all have some small sense of,” Cornelius said. “Fritz has studied and studied, and grasps Lincoln’s life and era as well as many published scholars, and better than some of them. I look up to him, he’s 6-feet-4 and a great teacher.
“I was lucky to be able to interview Fritz formally for our Oral History project, and those three hours or so are now online, with video,” Cornelius said. “He did some of it ‘in character’ and some of it as modern-day Fritz. He is always insightful, about history as well as about the need to present historical material to crowds or individuals.”
Justin Blandford is the superintendent of Springfield Historic Sites for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and he has used Klein often for reenactments at places like the Old State Capitol and the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office
“Fritz is much more than a presenter. He is a member of our community just like Lincoln was, and that level of investment and perspective empowers him to make an important and lasting impression,” Blandford said. “He is among the very best in his field, continuously honing his craft and reaching new heights.
“Fritz is entrepreneurial, very intelligent, and his example reminds us that people all over the world are interested in and attracted to Illinois because of leadership,” Blandford said.
Klein and his wife, Linda, who met in St. Louis in graduate school, recently returned from a month-long mission trip to Cambodia. They have three daughters and one son, plus several grandchildren.
“One of my children was immeasurably embarrassed (by his Lincoln portrayals) and continues to be,” Klein said. “And another one not so much by what I did, but struggled with the fact that I traveled, which I didn’t know until later.”
Those travels have included portrayals of Lincoln in Mexico, Canada, Scotland, England, Japan, Greece and China, plus all over the United States.
“My wife and I thought during those years that I was probably home more than most men because I would be home all summer and not even work during that time because my income was dependent on the school year,” Klein said. “So I had tons of time with the kids.”
The more he portrays Lincoln, the easier it is for Klein to get into character.
“As I’ve gotten older, it doesn’t take so long to get made up to look like an old guy,” Klein said. “My face has gotten thinner, so when I work on my weight it shows on my face.”
And how long does he intend to keep transforming into Abraham Lincoln?
“Who said I was planning?” Klein said. “I am very much a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of guy in all of my affairs.
“I am in excellent health and my energy level is almost what it was when I was in my 40s. Even recently I’ve had people say ‘You’re a young Lincoln,’” Klein said. “I am a privileged man, I really am. Most of my ability I was born with. I am a natural ham, I have an artistic side, so it works well.”
Fritz Klein Performance Credits
Film and television
2016 - Legends and Lies, TV miniseries
2015 - Lincoln’s Last Day, TV movie documentary
2013 - Lincoln’s Washington at War, TV movie documentary
- Civil War 360, TV miniseries
- Fight for Freedom
- The Confederacy
- The Union
2011- Lincoln’s Secret Killer?, TV movie documentary
2009 - Lost River: Lincoln’s Secret Weapon
- Lincoln: American Mastermind, TV movie
- Lincoln’s Last Night, TV series documentary
- Glance Back
2006 - No Retreat from Destiny: The Battle That Rescued Washington, video
At What Price, War?
Dream of Freedom
Lincoln & Douglass, an Unusual Friendship
Of Mutual Interest, Lincoln and Mexico or
“De Interés Mutuo - Lincoln y México”
The Heavens Are Hung in Black
A Springfield Farewell by Ken Bradbury
The Last Full Measure by Ken Bradbury
Message at Midnight by Ken Bradbury
David Blanchette is a freelance writer from Jacksonville and is also the co-owner of Studio 131 Photography in Springfield. He worked for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum from 1989 to 2012.