Local actor Rick Foucheux plays Alexander Graham Bell in “Bell,” a play by Jim Lehrer opening Thursday at National Geographic.

Journalism, Jim Lehrer says, was never his primary calling. Though the retired newsman is proud of his work as host of the “PBS Newshour” and his turn as moderator for a dozen presidential debates, he got into the business to be a writer, not a reporter.

That’s why, throughout his 54-year career, Lehrer has collected Emmys by day and written fiction by night — penning 20 novels and four plays to date.

Lehrer’s newest play was commissioned by the National Geographic Society and focuses on the group’s second president, Alexander Graham Bell. The one-man show, “Bell,” stars local actor Rick Foucheux and will premiere at National Geographic’s headquarters Thursday.

What do you hope audiences of this play will come away with?
Most people think of Alexander Graham Bell as the telephone man. I think after people see this play, they will realize he’s about a lot more. One thing people don’t know about was his attempt to develop a metal detector — a machine that could find the bullet that was lodged in the body of then-President James Garfield. The second thing people don’t know about him is that he was right there with the Wright brothers in developing powered-manned flight. I also think the play will get across how important inventors, the inventing spirit and the inventing mind have been and will always be — not only to our country, but to our world.

What did you find most challenging about writing your first foray into historical fiction?
I had to be careful; I had to get the facts right. In the other ones, I could make it up, more or less. For this one, I had to do a lot of research. Although there are some fictional elements when you reconstruct what people say and do, the underlying story must be based on fact.

It also has to ring true. The tone of it has to be accurate. It’s all about trying to get into Alexander Graham Bell’s head, and of course, he’s gone, so it all has to be done by research, and then you add your imagination to that.

How have you managed to work simultaneously as a journalist and a fiction writer for your entire career?
Whether you’re in journalism or writing fiction, you always have to tell stories and you always have to use words to do it. Telling a story is part and parcel of good journalism. The better you tell it, the wider the audience and the wider the understanding is going to be.

National Geographic Live!, 1600 M St. NW; through Sept. 21, $30; 202-857-7700. (Farragut North)