Theater News

David Selby Reaches for the Heavens

The famed television star plays Abraham Lincoln — for the third time — in the new play The Heavens Are Hung in Black.

David Selby
(© Scott Suchman)
David Selby
(© Scott Suchman)

David Selby says it doesn’t bother him at all to be performing as Abraham Lincoln in James Still’s new play The Heavens Are Hung In Black at the newly renovated Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. — the very same place where Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865. “Oh no, I don’t even think about it,” he says. “I don’t have time. Mr. Lincoln is so emotionally challenged in this play that’s it is all-consuming for an actor. And more importantly, this is a play the country should see.”

The play, which was commissioned for the theater’s reopening, is set in 1862 at a critical juncture in both the President’s life and the life of the country: Lincoln is grieving over the death of his 12-year-old son Willie; the war to save the Union is going badly in its early stages; and the question of freeing the nation’s four million slaves weighs heavily upon him. “I believe Lincoln had always been against slavery going back 30 years,” says Selby. “Before he was elected president, he declared that if he ever had the chance, he would end slavery forcibly. Here, he’s being pushed and pulled from all sides, and he’s actually faced with signing the Emancipation Proclamation.”

The 68-year-old actor has always had a keen personal interest in Lincoln, and even kept a copy of the Gettysburg Address in a scrapbook as a child. In 2007, he wrote the novel, Lincoln’s Better Angels, in which a man who is a caretaker at the Lincoln Memorial carries on extended imaginary conversations with Lincoln. And, not surprisingly, he has played Lincoln twice before. “But this play goes deeper than any Lincoln piece I’ve ever done,” he says. “In the early days, I got cast by default, because I was tall. And those plays were about a younger Lincoln.”

It hardly escapes Selby that the Emancipation Proclamation has indirectly resulted in the election of our current president, Barack Obama. “He has come to the White House at the end of a long line of stepping stones of so many African-Americans leaders over the years; people like W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington and Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King and on and on,” says Selby, admiringly.

If Lincoln is close to his heart, Selby’s fans know him from a variety of stage and screen roles, including Barbra Streisand’s husband in the 1972 film Up the Sandbox; stage versions of The Heiress, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Mame; the short-lived HBO series Tell Me That You Love Me; and, of course, the role of conniving Richard Channing on CBS’ nighttime soap opera Falcon Crest. But it’s his first small-screen role that has remained his most iconic, as romantic heartthrob Quentin Collins on the 1960s soap opera Dark Shadows.

“What a wonderful show on which to have a first job,” he says. “The characters traveled through different periods. It was like being in a repertory company.” Still, does Selby know why fan clubs of the show still meet nearly 40 years after the show went off the air. “It was so successful at creating its own world,” he says. “It was an escape. 1968 was a tumultuous year; Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, and the Vietnam war was raging and so were all the protests. This country was in upheaval then. It was a rarefied time.”

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