It wasn’t until the late ’90s – during a production of “Annie” at the Lancaster Opera House – that Albert McFadyen became hooked on portraying Franklin Delano Roosevelt. To research the role of FDR, McFadyen watched old movies, listened to countless speeches and then bought gold-rimmed pince-nez.
“I try to be as authentic as possible,” said the retired auditor, who was born in 1946, one year after Roosevelt’s death.
Playing FDR isn’t the only acting gig for the Lockport resident. For the last decade, McFadyen has played Irish Catholic priest Father Seamus McMurphy in “Finnegan’s Farewell,” staged annually by the Lancaster Regional Players.
You can catch McFadyen as Roosevelt at 2 p.m. Friday – Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day – at Niagara History Center, 215 Niagara St. in Lockport. At noon Saturday, McFadyen will present his one-man re-enactment at the Buffalo History Museum, formerly known as the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society Museum.
People Talk: Why FDR?
Albert McFadyen: My family always idolized him. My parents, my grandparents lived through the Great Depression. But the main factor in determining Franklin Delano Roosevelt was theater. I was very successful in my presentation at the Lancaster Opera House, plus I can sing. I thought if my friend Mike Randall can do Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, why can’t I do FDR?
PT: You sing, too?
AM: Oh yes, and by the way, Franklin Delano Roosevelt liked to sing. Going through my research, I found he drove his staff – whether at the White House or his home in Hyde Park – crazy singing “Home on the Range.”
PT: How does Pearl Harbor figure into your presentation?
AM: When I read his famous and historic Pearl Harbor war message to Congress, which is about six to seven minutes long, I am very emotional because obviously Roosevelt was very emotional. The Japanese the day before had attacked us at various points, especially at Pearl Harbor, doing a lot of damage to our country and putting us in the greatest war we’ve ever been in. He knew what he was facing, so when I read the speech, I’m thinking of all these things. I have to be very careful.
PT: How so?
AM: I look at some of the older members of the audience who will either close their eyes, or if their eyes are open, I’ll see tears. If I concentrate on that I become too emotional. I do realize very well what’s happening. These people are remembering loved ones who were killed during World War II, and they’re also remembering where they were when the news bulletins came to them that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
PT: You read the speech?
AM: I read it the way he did. Obviously that speech was written in less than 24 hours after the attack. A lot of it was written by Roosevelt, unlike some of today’s presidents where almost everything is written for them. In fact the famous phrase “a date that will live in infamy” was not originally in the speech. It was “a date that will live in history.” He changed the wording. Most of the other wording stayed the same. It was almost kind of a revenge speech.
PT: Is that the high point of your presentation?
AM: It tends to be, plus the fact that I can sing adds another dimension. “Happy Days Are Here Again” is played when I come in and the audience first sees me. I always enter from the back and come through the audience shaking hands and asking them to vote for me. What is simulated is the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1932.
PT: How immersed are you in your character?
AM: Oh boy. When I put on his clothes and his glasses and have his cigarette holder and ever-present cigarette, I become him and stay him until the end of the program. Unfortunately, when he died at 63, he looked like he was 83. So even though I am older than him – I’m 66 – I don’t look like I’m 83. I’m exactly as tall as he was – 6 feet 2 inches. He was a tall man. There are pictures of him, not too many of him standing.
PT: Please share some memorable performance moments.
AM: In Clarence I was taking questions and a gentleman asked why I allowed Pearl Harbor to take place if I knew days in advance the Japanese were coming. For some reason he really thought I was the president, so I told him very nicely I was not.
I’ve been asked many times, especially by women, about Roosevelt’s reported affairs. I leave that out of the show. It’s kind of a private thing. He did have an affair way back with a woman named Lucy Mercer. His wife, Eleanor, and mother, Sara, confronted him, and he chose Eleanor. But when he died on April 12, 1945, in Warm Springs, Georgia, Lucy Mercer was there.
PT: Tell me a lesser-known Roosevelt fact.
AM: When his mother died a few months before Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was a very devoted son. In fact, he was considered by many to be a mama’s boy even when he was married. And his mother did control certain aspects of his life. When she died, they say he never shed a tear. No one saw him cry until at least a week afterward, when one of the servants at Hyde Park brought him a shoe box that had the locks of his hair his mother had saved. They say he cried like a baby.
PT: Roosevelt was partially paralyzed at age 39 and could not walk. Where did you find your vintage wheelchair?
AM: In Pueblo, Colorado, on eBay. The lady had wanted $150, and I talked her down to $100. It just so happened that my oldest daughter lives there. So I bought the chair, and about a year-and-a-half later, me and the wife took a train like Roosevelt would have to Denver. I rented a vehicle and brought the chair back.
PT: Any other notable moments on the FDR trail?
AM: About three years ago, I received a call from the office of [filmmaker] Ken Burns in New Hampshire. They asked me to do Roosevelt’s voice for a documentary. I did the voice-over at WNED [studios]. It was for an episode of “Our National Parks: America’s Best Idea” on PBS. I also did audio for a documentary that hasn’t aired yet. It’s called “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.”