Meet ‘America’s actor’ Joe Jefferson

May 19, 2023

MARION — History fanatics gathered at the Benjamin D. Community Center to learn about Joe Jefferson— a 19th century actor referred to as the “Robert De Niro of his day.”

Sippican Historical Society Curator Frank McNamee shared his research on Jefferson's life on Friday, May 19. 

According to McNamee, Jefferson also referred to as “America’s actor,” was most known for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle in a series of plays and 1903 silent film based off the short story written by Washington Irving. 

“He was probably more popular than George Clooney,” said McNamee.

According to McNamee, Jefferson’s fame “took off” in 1858 due to his role as Rip Van Winkle. McNamee said that Jefferson performed the play 145 times across the country. 

“He changed the way acting was done,” said McNamee. “Acting in his time was regimented night after night, he created a style of acting that was more spontaneous.”

According to McNamee, Jefferson was a frequent visitor of Marion and often visited Old Stone Studio with other actors and artists.

As a fisherman and lover of nature, McNamee said that Jefferson often fished with President Grover Cleveland while summering in Marion. Both Jefferson and Cleveland had summer houses on Buttermilk Bay according to McNamee.

Additionally, Jefferson was also an artist who painted a number of landscapes and seascapes inspired by nature. 

An exhibit of artifacts from Jefferson’s life including some of his paintings is on display at the Sippican Historical Society through July 8.