The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

February 24, 2013

'Saving Lincoln'

Film has links to Vermilion County


— Just four years after celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday, America’s 16th president seems to be having a new surge of popularity, especially on movie and television screens.

On the heels of the Stephen Spielberg blockbuster “Lincoln,” and at the same time Bill O’Reilly’s novel, “Killing Lincoln,” premieres on television, a new independent film called “Saving Lincoln” has opened in theaters in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and other major cities across the country.

The movie has several connections to Vermilion County, starting with the main character, Ward Hill Lamon.

Abraham Lincoln asked Lamon, his friend, confidante and former law partner in Danville, to accompany him to Washington, D.C., following the 1860 presidential election. Lamon was Lincoln’s unofficial bodyguard through the Civil War, and was the U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia. Lamon even served as master of ceremonies for the dedication of the National Cemetery when Lincoln made his famous Gettysburg Address.

The movie was conceived and written by Nina and Salvadore Litvak. Sal was also the movie’s director. Nina has been a Lincoln buff since childhood and she had always dreamed of making a movie about her hero. She discovered Lamon in Galesburg native Carl Sandburg’s iconic biography of Lincoln and she was further inspired by “Recollections of Abraham Lincoln.”

That book was written by Ward Hill Lamon, and edited by his daughter, Dorothy Lamon Teillard, who was raised in Danville by her aunt and uncle after her mother’s death in 1859. Later in life, Dolly, as she was known, worked in Washington, D.C., for Danville’s John Charles Black, while he was commissioner of pensions.

As an historian, I was asked to become an historical consultant for the movie, along with Lincoln biographer Harold Holzer.

I worked with the actors, director and writers to give them historical information and background on the characters and events. My wife Rhea and I were asked to join the movie’s director for the first public showing of the movie to a crowd of around 300 at the Abraham Lincoln Museum and Library during the annual Abraham Lincoln Association Symposium earlier this month.

It received a standing ovation among the Lincoln buffs and scholars.

Rave reviews

Anne Tracey Mueller and her husband, Ron, had traveled from Central Missouri to attend the screening. Mueller said she “absolutely” loved it, adding, “I enjoyed the writing and loved what they did with the photographs. Having lived near Bloomington for many years, we knew about Lamon, but a lot of people will really learn from this.”

Garret Moffett, who portrays Ward Hill Lamon as part of Springfield’s “History Comes Alive” each summer, was impressed. “The portrayals of all the characters were spot on, and I’m elated to see this history brought to the forefront, since this story has never been told in a movie before.”

He added, “... and the soundtrack was fantastic with everything from Lamon singing banjo songs to bluesy period songs to fiddles to a soul-stirring spiritual.”

“It’s an awesome film with a unique story. Go see it with your eyes wide open and just enjoy what an amazing piece of art it is,” said Phyllis Evans, membership director of the Abraham Lincoln Museum and Library.

In “Saving Lincoln,” live action scenes were shot on a sound stage in Hollywood and then actual period photographs from the Civil War were electronically integrated as the background.

It isn’t a mega-million dollar Spielberg production — more of a docu-drama. Those Library of Congress images give the movie somewhat of a Ken Burns “The Civil War” feeling and look, with the Lamon character defending himself to other friends of Lincoln for not being with the president at Ford’s Theater. As he talks, you’re drawn into the story of those turbulent times as the characters come to life in the actual scenes.

Main characters

The Litvaks have a long list of movie credits, working in various capacities in hit movies. They also wrote and produced an award-winning film entitled “What’s for Dinner,” which starred Lesley Ann Warren and Michael Lerner.

In the movie, Lincoln is portrayed by Illinois native Tom Amandes. He starred as Eliott Ness in “The Untouchables” TV series in the mid-1990s and was Dr. Hal in the long-running cable series, “Everwood.”

The role of Lamon went to Lea Coco, a Mississippi native, who is an opera singer, as well as an actor. His movie roles include “Dorian Blues,” “J. Edgar” and the “Skeptic.” He also has a lengthy list of appearances on TV shows.

It was ironic that while on the way to take part in the annual Mary Todd Lincoln Coterie’s wreath dedication ceremony at the Lincoln Tomb, I received a message from Penelope Ann Miller. She had a long list of questions about her character, Mary Todd Lincoln, as rehearsals were about to start.

So, I was able to pose those questions to people who had studied Mary Todd in detail more than anyone else in the world. Coupling that with my own thoughts and Rhea Ann’s, who has researched Mrs. Lincoln for years, I think we were able give her some good insights into just who this much-misunderstood woman was.

Miller is well-known for her roles in movies and television shows. Those include the award-winning silent movie, “The Artist” from a couple of years ago. Other movies include, “Carlito’s Way,” “Kindergarten Cop,” “Awakenings,” “Dead Bang” and “Chaplin,” as well as a long list of TV credits.

Sal Litvak said, “Along with casting Penelope, Tom and Lea, we were thrilled to get the outstanding stage and screen actress, Saidah Arrika Ekulona in the role of Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley, friend and dressmaker for Mrs. Lincoln. Ekulona brought special life to that character.”

Her list of movie credits includes “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which starred Danville native Gene Hackman.

There are a lot of other familiar faces in the movie, like character actor Bruce Davison and Creed Bratton from “The Office.”

Saying it right

People in our area will probably find that it sounds odd the way the name “Lamon” is pronounced in the movie. Instead of saying “Lay-mon,” as we do around here, it rhymes with Lamb, so it’s “Lamm-uhn.” That’s more the way it was pronounced in Lamon’s native Virginia. And even here, there are many variations of the pronunciation and spelling of that five-letter name, sometimes shortened, sometimes lengthened, but all in the same family.

Plans are being made for nationwide distribution of the movie following the limited showings, which began Feb. 15.