Catching up with Jonathan Blackmer

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 3, 2012

By Katie Scarvey
It must have been a surreal moment for Jonathan Blackmer. While acting in director Steven Spielberg’s upcoming movie about Abraham Lincoln, the Salisbury native had a chance to ask the famous director whether he knew his father, the actor Sidney Blackmer.
“Yes, I worked with your father,” Spielberg says.
When Jonathan asked how, Spielberg touched his hand to his head . It was as if to say he’d communed with Blackmer by watching his films.
“He knows the great actors, and he draws from them,” Jonathan said.
It must have been a proud moment for Jonathan, to have his father, who died in 1973, remembered in such a way.
If they were still alive, it’s likely that Sidney and Suzanne Blackmer would have been proud of their son for working with someone like Spielberg in the industry on which they put their own indelible marks.
Although Jonathan has recently gotten involved in making films, that hasn’t been his lifelong pursuit. He was an attorney who served as a prosector for the Justice Department, working on such high-profile cases as Enron.
As a lawyer, he was following more in the footsteps of his great grandfather, Luke Blackmer, than his famous father. Luke Blackmer was a prominent lawyer in Salisbury in the 1840s.
Even though he says he always wanted to be an actor like his father, Jonathan didn’t have any illusions that his father’s mantle would fall on his shoulders.
“I never had the talent he had,” he says.
Jonathan grew up, with brother Brewster, at the Blackmer home on Fulton Street. Jonathan was hit by a car in front of that house when he was 5 years old, causing injuries that led to numerous surgeries over the years.
Despite that distressing memory, “Salisbury was a wonderful place to grow up,” he says.
As a boy, he apprenticed at his father’s summer theatre in Hinsdale, Ill,, working with the likes of ZaSu Pitts and Joey Brown.
Jonathan was in boarding school in New York when his father was in “Sweet Bird of Youth,” the play for which he won a Tony. Jonathan remembers hanging around the theatre and getting coffee for one of the play’s stars — Paul Newman.
His mother, Suzanne, who died in 2004, was also an actress. She had a significant role in “The Great Ziegfield,” which won an Academy Award for best picture in 1936. She was also known for her roles in “Three Stooges” films.
In later years, her most notable role was as the woman who battled Donald Trump, who was her Manhattan landlord. She ultimately prevailed against Trump — and got to remain in her rent-controlled apartment.
Jonathan admits that as a young man, he was sometimes embarrassed by his flamboyant mother.
“I didn’t understand her,” he explains. “I appreciated her more as I got older. She was a remarkable person.”
Some years ago, Jonathan was reading about his mother on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) when he noticed that her birth date and age were wrong.
He went to Suzanne, explaining that the website indicated she was 87 years old instead of 82 — the age he knew her to be.
Suzanne hemmed and hawed a bit and finally told Jonathan that, in fact, the IMDb date was correct. Like many actresses, she’d found it in her best interests to be less than forthcoming about her real age.
But back to Jonathan.
A resident of Alexandria, Va., Jonathan was drawn back to acting when he did some background work for the last episode of the television drama “West Wing.”
In background work, Jonathan explains, “You look like the wallpaper. They don’t want you to stand out at all.”
Looking like the wallpaper was probably not something that would have appealed to either of Jonathan’s parents.
He also did background work in the television miniseries “John Adams” — in which you can see the top of his hand tapping a cane, he says.
Not too glamorous, but you get paid a little money and get a few meals, he says.
A few years ago, Jonathan was fortunate enough to acquire his Screen Actors Guild card — under the name of Sidney Blackmer Jr.
He auditioned in May for an upcoming HBO movie called “Game Change,” a docudrama based on a political novel by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann about the John McCain/Sarah Palin campaign. He got a callback and has a small speaking role in that.
In August, he was asked to audition for a role in a Steven Spielberg drama about Abraham Lincoln that was being shot in Richmond. The film, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Lincoln, stars Daniel Day-Lewis. Focusing on the last few months of Lincoln’s life, the film deals with the passing of the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery.
In anticipation of his audition, Jonathan immediately began to grow a beard.
He dressed up for the audition, wearing a string tie and a long black frock coat that he dons when he plays “Bad Jack Black” in “cowboy action shooting” — a pastime in which reenactors dress in cowboy clothing appropriate for the 1860s-1880s and fire single-action weapons.
He read for four different roles and was offered the part of Henry Langford, a character based on a real historical figure whose name was changed to protect his descendants’ privacy, Jonathan says.
When he got the phone call telling him he’d gotten a role, one of the women he’d auditioned for confided, “When you were in that room, your father was in there with you.”
Blackmer, who spent two weeks in Richmond for shooting, is in the part of the movie in which members of the House of Representatives are being lobbied to vote for the passage of the amendment.
The historical recreation is impressive, he says: “It’s you’re looking at a Matthew Brady photo.”
He can’t say enough about Spielberg as a director. “The man is an absolute master,” he says.
After one of Tommy Lee Jones’ scenes, Spielberg had tears in his eyes, Jonathan says. But moved as he was, the director still wanted to shoot it one more time, Blackmer says.
The Lincoln movie is set to hit theaters in the last quarter of this year.
If you have HBO, you can catch Jonathan Blackmer in“Game Change,” which will air at 9 p.m. March 10. The film stars Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson and Ed Harris.