clock menu more-arrow no yes

Actor Edward Herrmann has died at 71. Here’s why he was the definitive FDR.

Actor Edward Herrmann has died at 71, after a long battle with brain cancer. The actor was perhaps best known for his work on Gilmore Girls, where he played Gilmore patriarch Richard. But his career was long, eclectic, and filled with great roles. Fittingly for a Gilmore cast member, he had the feel of a New England blue blood patrician, but he was always able to undercut that upper-crustiness with some wry good humor and a wink.

One of the more curious aspects of Herrmann's career, however, was the fact that Herrmann ended up playing Franklin Delano Roosevelt — either in body or voice — five separate times, in addition to narrating a documentary about the man. Born in 1943, Herrmann almost certainly had no memory of the man he played so often, but he became linked with the president in the popular imagination anyway. It's rare for an actor to play a famous person more than once. It's almost unheard of for it to happen five separate times.

FDR is one of the most famous American presidents, but his life has been weirdly under-fictionalized, which means that Herrmann had a near monopoly on playing the four-term president, especially in projects where Roosevelt was anything more than a side character. (One of the few others to play the man in a biopic? Bill Murray, of all people.)

Herrmann became known for the part thanks to the late '70s made-for-TV movie Eleanor and Franklin and its sequel Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years. Herrmann played the president from late adolescence through his death, and his work with Jane Alexander (as Eleanor Roosevelt) resulted in awards nominations and critical acclaim. The films, for better or worse, cemented Herrmann and Alexander as the foremost portrayers of the Roosevelts.

But Eleanor and Franklin is little-seen today. Herrmann probably now is better known for his work as FDR — the character is literally called that — in the 1982 screen version of the musical Annie. The film is not very good (though it's better than the 2014 remake), but Herrmann's warm charm as FDR shines through. He's a kind, compassionate fellow, in a film that's all about the power of positive feeling and kindness.

From there, Herrmann's association with the president was more or less complete. Even as he grew too old to credibly play FDR as a young man, he could still voice Roosevelt in projects like Ken Burns's recent documentary The Roosevelts, or a 2013 PBS miniseries about the history of superheroes. Even though Herrmann and FDR sounded nothing alike — the most famous recordings of FDR make him sound a little tinny, while Herrmann's voice was a sonorous baritone — his voice just read as FDR.

Herrmann's death, then, leaves open the question of who will be the go-to FDR now. For decades, directors could turn to the actor for a nuanced, skilled interpretation of the 32nd president. Now, sadly, they'll have to look elsewhere.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.