At first glance, the similarities are as obvious as they are uncanny: the dramatic, angular chin and nose, deep-set eyes, and lanky frame. But Jim Rubin’s remarkable resemblance to Abraham Lincoln goes beyond a superficial likeness. The same larger-than-life enthusiasm that helped make our 16th president one of history’s most unforgettable men has helped make Rubin one of Lincoln’s most talented impersonating performers.
Rubin, 69, has been told he looks like Lincoln for most of his adult life, but aside from a stand-in role in West Virginia’s centennial pageant in 1963, he never thought much about making a job out of it. After retiring from a long career as a clinical psychologist and counselor, however, he began giving the comparisons another thought. Just a few years and a few hundred performances later, he’s become one of the nation’s leading “Abe Lincolns.”
Connecting with Lincoln across history has been as revealing a process for him as it is for his audience, Rubin says.
“At first I had to cram because I didn’t know that much about Lincoln, his history, and the Civil War.” He couldn’t even quote from the Gettysburg Address. Hundreds of recitations later, he feels closer to understanding the timeless attributes Lincoln embodied—“character, honesty, and high integrity,” he says.
And he also relates strongly to Lincoln’s humble beginnings, having grown up himself the 12th of 14 children on a small farm with limited means.
The business of performing the Lincoln role, which Rubin has done professionally since 1997, is a changing task. “I try to gear my presentation to the circumstance,” he says. At a Mother’s Day event last year, for instance, he focused on Lincoln’s upbringing by two mothers—his natural mother, who died when he was 9 years old, and his stepmother.
Rubin of Prosperity, W.Va., (pop. 1,310) also enjoys annual performances with the Association of Lincoln Presenters, whose gathering he brought to West Virginia for the first time last year. He has placed highly in numerous Lincoln competitions and has played the role as far away as California, Texas, North and South Carolina, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. He even appeared on the Today show and C-SPAN in the role, and among his proudest performances was before the House of Delegates assembly at the West Virginia statehouse. “I spoke for 25 minutes and gave a history of the making of the state of West Virginia,” he says. “Many people don’t know how involved Lincoln was on that issue, so many of those legislators had a history lesson.”
Schoolchildren are among his favorite audiences. While older students get a detailed dose of Civil War history, Rubin focuses on Lincoln’s early life for younger grade schoolers. Many are sufficiently impressed with his “Lincoln suit,” complete with frock coat and stovepipe hat, and some are a little too thoroughly convinced at the performance. “One little girl said, ‘If I came up there, could I walk through you?’” he says. “I have to let them know that I’m not a ghost.”
Other kids have offered similar flattery, such as the first-grader who solemnly raised her hand and informed him, “I voted for you.”
Gayle Mills, a fifth-grade teacher in Beckley, W. Va., who has worked with Rubin on numerous occasions, credits his success to his extensive research and a certain, less tangible quality. “He looks special,” she says. “He has an aura about him that he carries when he’s in character that does reach out.”
His enthusiasm being infectious, Rubin recently recruited his wife, Edna, to appear beside him as Mary Todd Lincoln in 19th-century period dress, and some of his seven grandchildren have posed for portraits as Lincoln’s children.
While he doesn’t hold his family to the same stringent sense of accuracy, Rubin continues to relish inhabiting the role in all its details, right down to the beard. Indeed, many of his younger audience members who have been offered a verifying tug can attest Rubin’s proud claim, “The whiskers are my whiskers.”