Polio's Effect on FDR
TV Special Focuses on How the Illness Shaped the Man.
Fresno Bee, 29 April 2005
UNIVERSAL CITY — British actor Kenneth Branagh knows his American history. That came in handy for his portrayal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the HBO original film "Warm Springs."
"There was a strong image from our side of the Atlantic that he seemed to be an indisputable great leader," Branagh says during an interview with television critics. "I'm personally fascinated by history and by the Second World War.
"I'm particularly aware and interested in his relationship to [Winston] Churchill, which was a very extraordinary one."
The film, debuting at 8 p.m. Saturday, looks at events in Roosevelt's life long before World War II. It focuses on efforts in 1924 by Roosevelt to find a miracle cure for the polio that left him a paraplegic. The future president and his wife, Eleanor (Cynthia Nixon), seek help in the backwoods of rural Georgia.
Branagh was a little intimidated about taking on the role because of what he called the vastness of Roosevelt's political and private life. He became more comfortable with the role once he realized the film looks at how a future world leader's battle with the stigma of polio leads to an encounter with those affected by disability, poverty, illiteracy and racism.
These events would help shape the man who would become a future four-term president.
"This very specific, personal struggle, both before and then all the way through the presidency, helped him cast a very, very long shadow for us as well as for Americans," Branagh says.
Getting the role right started with Branagh doing research beyond the image of FDR as a world leader. Branagh was particularly fascinated to find that Roosevelt was an only child from a privileged background.
"All of that was meat-and-drink to me, as was listening to the speeches endlessly," Branagh says. The role is a slight departure for Branagh, who is best known for his work in feature films, especially movie versions of the writings of William Shakespeare. He's starred in "Hamlet," "Much Ado About Nothing," "Love's Labour's Lost," "Othello" and Henry V." Branagh also has appeared in such pop-culture films as "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" and the upcoming "Mission: Impossible 3."
Shakespeare actually creates a connection between Branagh and Roosevelt. The actor discovered that FDR, in times of crisis, would quote the troop-inspiring St. Crispin's Day speech from "Henry V."
Branagh says Roosevelt was such an inspiration that he certainly stands equal to the great leaders of which Shakespeare wrote.
"I think on a personal level you could describe [Roosevelt's life] as, if not Shakespearean, certainly it's very bloody impressive and maybe even epic. So, it's a big yarn from a big soul," Branagh says.
Despite the actor's classical résumé, "Warm Springs" director Joseph Sargent had no problems casting Branagh to portray FDR.
"This man has such an impeccable ear. He is the quintessential actor who can do virtually anything," Sargent says.