The Rifleman's Abe Lincoln is the same one you heard in Disney's Hall of Presidents
Royal Dano was the go-to guy for playing Honest Abe.
Right image: Disney
A century after his assassination, Abraham Lincoln remained a constant presence on TV. He was a surprisingly popular figure in Sixties sci-fi, popping up as a character on Star Trek ("The Savage Curtain"), Doctor Who ("The Chase"), The Time Tunnel ("Death Trap") and The Twilight Zone ("The Passerby" and "The Bard"). There were several historic tales in anthology series, miniseries and TV movies — not to mention the occasional Western.
Honest Abe was such a frequent onscreen presence that a few actors were typecast as the 16th President. Raymond Massey, who portrayed Lincoln on stage and on film, joked that he was "the only actor ever typecast as a president." Not so. Austin Green played him a few times. And then there was Royal Dano.
The Fifties television series Omnibus strived for education, something that hardly concerns the networks these days. In fact, Omnibus aired on ABC, CBS and NBC at some point in its run. Beginning in the holiday season of 1952, Omnibus aired its five-part story of "Mr. Lincoln," which traced Lincoln from "Early Boyhood" to "The End."
It was a breakout lead role for quirky character actor Royal Dano. The prior year, Dano had appeared as the Tattered Man in the big-screen adaptation of the harrowing World War I novel The Red Badge of Courage. His performance in his death scene was so effective that its unnerved test audiences, who left the theater. Director John Huston cut the scene. So, a meaty five-hour role as the most famous American was a major leap.
Following "Mr. Lincoln," Dano became a regular presence on Gunsmoke, frequently appearing to play a prospector, a preacher, or whatever deeply touching man the script called for.
Dano turned up a handful of times on The Rifleman, too. Many Westerns, actually. But in 1961, he slipped into his familiar Lincoln makeup for "Honest Abe." In that story, Lucas and Mark encounter a neighbor named Able "Abe" Lincoln, a man who believes himself to be the former POTUS.
We like to think that Walt Disney was watching that evening. A few years later, Mr. Disney himself picked Dano to play Lincoln again in a fantastic new way. Disney was crafting an exhibit for the 1964 World's Fair called Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, which would feature an Audio-Animatronic Lincoln orating to an audience. Disney felt that Dano's stentorian voice came closest to descriptions of Abraham Lincoln's own voice.
One year later, the attraction opened in Disneyland, where Dano's voice would be heard in some form until the turn of the millennium. The Dano recordings would also be used in The Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World, until that attraction was retooled in 1993.