Pittsfield native Scott Wichmann goes from PHS stage to ‘Lincoln'
Pittsfield native Scott Wichmann will never forget uttering the words, "Fort Fisher is ours. We've taken the port!" in October 2011 because he said them in a room occupied by Abraham Lincoln.
Or rather, actor Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of him on the set of Steven Spielberg's critically acclaimed new film, "Lincoln."
Wichmann's dialogue is the heart of the film's pivotal scene in which his character -- an assistant to the secretary of war named Charles Benjamin -- reads off the telegraph to a room crowded with people, eager to hear that the Union soldiers and the navy had seized the fort from the Confederates on Jan. 15, 1865. That was a fate-sealer for the Confederates in the Civil War.
"I was able to be in this amazing world," Wichmann said, who's been an actor since his days at Pittsfield High School in the early ‘90s. "It's a great feeling to know that I had a part in a movie that will be shown in schools for years and years."
Nominated for seven Golden Globes including Best Drama and Best Actor for Day-Lewis' performance, "Lincoln" focuses on the 16th president's last few months in office. It also stars Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and Joseph Gordon Levitt.
Wichmann, who now lives in Richmond, Va., landed the role in "Lincoln" as filming wrapped up last year on "Lake Effects," a Hallmark Channel movie that aired in May. The casting director for "Lake Effects" was also casting for "Lincoln."
Specifics about the film were under wraps while it was coming together. It was produced under the fake name "Office Seekers" and there was no mention of Abraham Lincoln being in the film, just that it was about the Civil War.
"I'm standing in the parking lot of Toys ‘R' Us in Chester [Va.] when the casting director calls me," Wichmann recalled. "They said, ‘Steven Spielberg saw your tape and likes you, but doesn't know what part to put you in.'"
It's ironic Spielberg chose Wichmann to play the character that relays news that the Navy helped take over Fort Fisher. Wichmann is a naval reservist, and was supposed to go to Battle Creek, Mich., for training before being deployed to Afghanistan.
Filming for Wichmann's scene in "Lincoln" took place in the historic downtown of Richmond, Va., on Oct. 26 and 27, 2011. That conflicted with Wichmann's training schedule in Michigan, but his commanding officers "moved Heaven and Earth so that I was able to do the shoot," Wichmann said.
"I missed the first week of training to do the film," he said. "My unit rallied to get me on. They were just blown away. Some thought it was actually ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter' that I had worked on."
Wichmann said he would repeat his only, but important, line ad nauseam a month before the cameras were even rolling.
A 1991 Pittsfield High School graduate, Wichmann shared the stage with Hollywood actress Elizabeth Banks in the school's 1991 production of "Man of La Mancha." Wichmann played Don Quixote, and Banks played his leading lady, Aldonza.
"The spirit of that show really drew in full houses every time it played," said William Coan, who was the principal at Pittsfield High School at the time.
Ralph Hammann was the director, and used to think "It's as good as it gets with [Banks and Wichmann]. If anyone gets anywhere, it's these two."
"I was the lucky guy who saw it and nurtured what I could and give them the confidence to go on with it," Hammann said. "Scott was one of the most versatile actors I had at the high school. One chooses plays because you have a character actor like Scott."
Under Hammann's tutelage, Wichmann was introduced to a wide variety of plays and playwrights such as Moliére and Stephen Sondheim.
"There was nothing off-limits because we were students," Wichmann said. "He steered us in a really positive direction."
Pittsfield High School underwent a renovation that converted the old auditorium into a library and classrooms. After another theater was built, Coan hired Hammann in 1981, and said he "did a fantastic job" of getting the school's theater department state and regional recognition.
"I think it is still a pride of the school, just as an athletic program might be," Coan said.
"Lincoln" has made more than $100 million at the domestic box office, and sold out Berkshire theaters at the beginning of its theatrical run. It opened on Nov. 16, the night that Wichmann's on-stage production of "The Producers" premiered in Richmond, Va. Wichmann plays Leo Bloom, one of the two lead roles in the Mel Brooks play.
"My family came to see ‘The Producers' on Friday, then the next day, we saw ‘Lincoln,' " Wichmann said. "It was an amazing 48 hours for me. I thought back to all the people that supported me. I carry home with me everywhere."
Wichmann's family stayed through the closing credits -- which are too small to really read, according to Wichmann's father, Ted -- to see "Scott Wichmann" scroll up the screen.
"He's come a long way in his acting," his father said.
The Golden Globes air on NBC on Jan. 13. Wichmann said that Day-Lewis' performance as Lincoln is "one of the great performances in American cinema."
"You could just see how focused he was," Wichmann said. "He was very precise and a pleasant person to be around. There was no way you could look at him as anything other than President Lincoln."
The film's local run concludes on Monday at the Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield.
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