Fritz Klein can fool just about anyone. The chin, the beard, the nose, the hair, the wingspan. The way he leans back when he stands and wags his finger. How he walks into an auditorium to the beat of “Hail to the Chief,” taking tiny bows while shaking hands with constituents, giving Daniel Day-Lewis a run for his money. Dress Klein in a top hat and an 1860s suit with coattails, and he is Abraham Lincoln.
“Best I’ve ever seen,” said Susan Grace Dittman, who wrote “Abraham Lincoln’s Shining Star — the Inspiring Story of Abraham Lincoln and Nebraska.”
Standing between two guards in Union attire at Sunday’s 14th annual Abraham Lincoln Birthday Celebration at Lincoln Southwest, Klein did what the 16th President of the United States always did: He told stories.
“When I was elected four years ago…You know, my mother…In fact, there’s a story about that…”
Klein, who has been acting since 1970 and playing Lincoln exclusively since 1980, says sometimes he even fools himself. “Once in a while,” Klein says, “I do feel like I have some presidential authority. Once in a while, there’s a glimmer. ”While living in Hawaii in 1976, Klein initially turned down the role of playing Lincoln in a community play. “But a professional makeup artist said to me, ‘Let me show you what we can do with you,’” Klein said. Since that first performance, Klein has portrayed Lincoln in feature films in both the U.S. and in Europe, and can count on one hand how many roles he’s turned down, including the most recent: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
Klein and his family moved to the Continental U.S. in 1980, wanting to settle down in a place where tourism would play a big role in the community. The perfect fit was Springfield, Ill., where Klein portrays Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, convincing thousands of what he himself first had to be convinced.
To assume the part in the beginning, he read a Benjamin B. Thomas biography of Lincoln and then Lincoln’s manuscripts. “I’ve learned to know and connect with him as an individual,” Klein said, adding he has a “substantial library” now of books dedicated to Lincoln.
Those studies have made his performance of Lincoln so believable that even if a question from the floor is asked at random, like why Nebraska is mentioned 13 times more than Kansas in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Klein can give you Lincoln’s words on the subject. “Nebraska’s territory goes all the way up to Canada, you see …” he begins, giving a metaphor for how Nebraska was a pie and Kansas was but a mere slice, ending with an eloquent, “Did I sufficiently answer your question, sir?”
Klein, 65, intends to retire as Lincoln. He’s still got time though, since Lincoln looked much older than he was at the time of his death.
Klein continues to perform for the same reason that people showed up at the annual Lincoln birthday celebration on Sunday: Lincoln is important and inspirational.
“Lincoln had the biggest impact on Nebraska as a president than anyone else has since,” Dittman said. And other places, too.
“We live in a time where we need true heroes,” Klein said. “Lincoln was an amazing man, a true hero.”