Massey was best known for playing Abraham Lincoln, which he did on Broadway in "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," a part he also did in the 1940 movie version. He would repeat that role in two television versions of the play, in 1950 and 1951. He also played the ill-fated president in a 1956 television presentation, "The Day Lincoln Was Shot." His final turn as Lincoln was in the 1962 movie, "How the West Was Won," which provided some evidence that Massey enjoyed a good joke. Both the movie and "Dr. Kildare" were filmed at MGM. He was excused from one episode of "Kildare" in order to do the movie, and during a break sneaked onto the "Kildare" set and surprised his TV co-star, Richard Chamberlain, by walking into a scene in his Lincoln costume and make-up.
Massey also did a tongue-in-cheek character called B. Elzie Bubb in an episode of Stefanie Powers' 1966 series, "The Girl from UNCLE." And the fact he played Jonathan Brewster in the movie version of "Arsenic and Old Lace" also was proof Massey could take a joke. (Brewster was created for Boris Karloff, who played the part on Broadway, but was unavailable for the movie. The character required Massey to look like Frankenstein's monster.)
Besides Lincoln, Massey was known for his performances as abolitionist John Brown in two movies, "Santa Fe Trail" (1940) and "Seven Angry Men" (1955). He also is well remembered for playing the disapproving father opposite James Dean in "East of Eden," another 1955 release.
Heaven knows how Massey would have responded if I had asked him about his unusual divorce from his second wife actress Adrianne Allen, a case that was the inspiration for the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy movie, "Adam's Rib," which was written by the husband-and-wife team of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon (who had played Mary Todd Lincoln opposite Massey in "Abe Lincoln in Illinois").
Massey and his wife were friends with husband-and-wife attorneys William Dwight Whitney and Dorothy Whitney. Mr. Whitney represented Mrs. Massey, Mrs. Whitney represented Mr. Massey. Mrs. Massey went on to become the new Mrs. Whitney, and the old Mrs. Whitney became the new Mrs. Massey.
You'd think a guy who went through something like that could have tolerated a stupid question or two.
Massey was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1896, and made his first film, "High Treason," in 1929, the year he and his first wife, Margery Fremantle, were divorced, and he re-married, to Adrianne Allen. In all, Massey was married 61 years, to three women, and from 1921 until his third wife died in 1982, he was single only a matter of weeks. Massey himself died in 1983, a month shy of what would have been his 87th birthday.
He and his first wife had a son, Geoffrey; with his second wife he had two children who also went into acting, Daniel and Anna Massey, both of who were married in England and did most of their work there. Daniel Massey died in 1998, at the age of 1998. Anna Massey died in 2011, at the age of 73. She delivered unforgettable performances as a guest star in two of my favorite episodes from two of my favorite programs — "Whom the Gods Would Destroy" from "Inspector Lewis" (2007) and "Secrets and Spies" from "Midsomer Murders" (2009).