Whitmore Muses on History, Heroes, and Mr. Holmes

JAMES Whitmore is a time machine. He is best known for theatrical performances that transport audiences to a historical period marked by a prominent American and his deeds. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his virtuoso performance (originally on stage) as Harry Truman in ''Give 'Em Hell, Harry!'' and toured nationally as Theodore Roosevelt in ''Bully!'' He pioneered the one-man show with his still-running ''Will Rogers, U.S.A.''

Sitting in the afternoon sunlight at the Watergate Hotel (the man just can't get enough of the American historical experience), Mr. Whitmore reflected on his 50 years as an actor, and why he has gravitated to roles that pay homage to the American past.

Furrowing his bushy brow, he says, ''The knowledge of history is terribly important to get us to the next place.''

Whitmore's first historical role was Ulysses S. Grant, ''I learned a lot about a man I knew very little about,'' Whitmore says of the Civil War-hero-cum president. He hopes his audiences' forays into history will whet their appetite to know more.

What does he make of the growing disillusionment with public figures? Politicians are engaged in a messy business, he responds. ''They're all lying. All the time. And most are masters of obfuscation.'' But that's only half the story, he adds. Because of the micro-focus on these figures, misdeeds and questions about character have become the norm instead of the exception. ''We are an overinformed society. The press like contention, and they are more apt to report problems, and even create them.'' That has left Americans ''with a great hunger for ennoblement.''

Asked if there were a man or woman living today whom he would like to portray in decades to come, Whitmore supplied a ready answer. ''Nelson Mandela. He's my only living hero. I stand in awe of him.''

Though Whitmore has starred in many movies, he much prefers the stage.

Ford's Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, is an ideal venue for Whitmore's current production about Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., ''The Magnificent Yankee.'' Is he daunted by the theater that is literally draped in nostalgia? ''I try not to look at Lincoln's box,'' he says of the balcony area where the nation's 16th president was shot.

Prodded about his future contributions to the theater, Whitmore calls upon an Oliver Wendell Holmes quote, which the Supreme Court justice recounted from an officer in the Civil War: ''You take one trench, and there's always another firing line beyond.''

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