No lie — being George Washington is tough

John Kelly
Columnist February 19, 2012

In this bitter election year, people often come up to Dean Malissa and tell him they wish he were running for president. “Where are you when we need you?” they ask. Dean knows it isn’t him they want. It’s the person he’s dressed up as: George Washington.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

George Washington may be dead and buried, but Dean Malissa is trying to keep him alive. He appears as the founding father about 150 times a year, including Monday at Mount Vernon, where he is the only officially sanctioned Washington interpreter.

It’s not what Dean expected to be doing with his life. For 25 years he traveled the world selling industrial heating and air-conditioning equipment. In 1999, he decided that wasn’t for him any more.

“I didn’t know what I was going to be when I grew up,” Dean told me on the phone from Philadelphia, where he lives. “I was about 46 years old and I decided to become an actor.”

Despite having spent most of his adult life selling HVAC systems, he was pretty successful, quickly carving a niche for himself in industrial films. He looked good in a white coat and was often cast as a corporate “spokesdoctor,” he said. “Like a Marcus Welby kind of trustworthy guy.”

Then a friend introduced Dean to Bill Sommerfield, Mount Vernon’s previous George Washington.

“When I met him he was 70 years old, already older than Washington was when Washington passed on, by three years,” Dean said. “To Bill’s credit he was looking for a younger Washington.”

And so Dean entered an apprenticeship.

“He became Yoda and I became Luke Skywalker,” Dean said.

It’s possible Dean didn’t appreciate at first the commitment involved in taking on such an iconic role. After he auditioned for Sommerfield — who died in 2009 — the older actor looked at him and said, “I have no doubt that you can do Washington. I’m not sure you can do Bill Sommerfield.”

Dean wasn’t sure what that meant. Did it mean he should imitate Bill Sommerfield imitating George Washington?

No. What Sommerfield meant was that being Washington is all-consuming. Bill had been willing to devote his life to a single role. Was Dean willing to do the same?

The answer was yes.

There’s a certain amount of process in learning to be the father of our country. Dean mastered a Tidewater Virginia accent. He learned how to ride a horse with an English saddle. (He’d always ridden western.) He found places to get boots made, and Colonial-era military uniforms.

But more important is trying to think as Washington thought, reading what Washington read, reading what Washington wrote. Last week, Dean looked through some of Washington’s letters in the rare manuscript library at Yale.

He takes the responsibility very seriously. “I never engage in a performance which puts Washington in a poor light or a silly light,” Dean said. (He recently turned down an invitation to appear in various automobile showrooms for Presidents’ Day sales.)

Dean has performed as Washington in lots of places, from elementary schools to the inaugural United Airlines flight from Dulles to Beijing when the carrier was awarded that route.

He seldom breaks character and expects certain questions. People always ask about chopping down the cherry tree. “I will tell them in character that it’s a myth. It never happened. I tell them I’m the son of a planter and I understand the value of a tree that bears fruit.”

A handful of people he encounters are cold or hostile. “They sadden me deeply,” he said. “They can’t even acknowledge you, can’t even make eye contact. I always say those people have allowed the child in them to die completely.”

In his travels Dean has detected a common lament. “I can tell you, the American public, they desperately want to believe in their government again,” he said. “They really want to believe in their leaders again and they’re very disappointed in where we are now.”

Becoming George has touched Dean more than being yet another spokesdoctor would. He was once on a Mexican beach with his wife, immersed in yet another book on Washington, when he found himself overwhelmed by the greatness of the first president’s accomplishments.

“I probably had two or three beers in me,” Dean said. “I just put the book down and started crying. My wife looked at me. I said, ‘This guy, this guy ... ’ And really, that has been the greatest impact on me.”

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