Philly Flashbacks

The odd, the interesting and the downright ridiculous.

Show Me the Benjamins: Franklin on Stage, Screen & in Print



Who’s Philadelphia’s most iconic homeboy? Without a doubt, it’s longtime favorite Ben Franklin. We have a bridge, a parkway, a science museum, a city square and an ice cream fountain named after him. Honest Quaker William Penn may look down benevolently from City Hall over the city he founded, but it’s Ben that tourists line up to learn about at the new underground museum at Franklin Court. Even in his own lifetime, Franklin was arguably the most well known American citizen, beloved by his countrymen and by French ladies alike. If anything set some people against him, it might have been that he enjoyed all that wealth and fame a bit too much.


Franklin was a shrewd statesman, always keenly aware of the image he projected. He’d no doubt be pleased to see himself represented so often on movie and television screens in the twentieth century. In 1911, Franklin appeared as a character in a silent film called “Hands Across the Sea,” which featured several tableaux from the American Revolution. The director staged Franklin in a re-creation of the widely distributed 19th century lithograph of his reception at the court of France in 1778, receiving the “Laurel Wreath of Enlightenment” before Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette:

1911 Hands Across the Sea in '76

Dorothy Gibson played Diane de Polignac, holding the wreath, above.  Just a year after filming this scene, Gibson would earn  national fame for surviving the sinking of the Titanic. She and her friends who had been playing bridge in the salon escaped in lifeboat #7, the first one launched.


Walter Walker, who made a career of playing old-timers usually called “Pop,” had a one scene walk-on role as Dr. Franklin in the 1938 Norma Shearer and Tyrone Power extravaganza “Marie Antoinette”:

Franklin 1938

BEN AND ME, 1953

In 1953’s “Ben and Me,” Franklin became an animated cartoon character, voiced over by Charles Ruggles and accompanied by a mouse named Amos, played by the gravelly voiced Sterling Holloway. The movie was based on Robert Lawson’s 1939 children’s book of the same name:


In this star studded Franch production, it was the illustrious, but glum looking Orson Welles who made an appearance as Benjamin Franklin:

1954 Orson Welles - Royal Affairs in Versailles


Robert Stack played John Paul Jones in this technicolor epic biography, with a cameo by Bette Davis as Catherine the Great. Character actor Charles Coburn played a Cowardly Lion look-alike Franklin, who urged  Jones to invade Britain:

1959 Charles Coburn J P Jones

Jones, a great admirer of Franklin, would rename his warship the “Bonhomme Richard” to honor the Richard Saunders character of Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac.”


Orson Welles, speaking very badly accented French, played Franklin one more time in this Franco-Italian biography of the Marquis de Lafayette:

1961 Orson Welles -  Lafayette


Ben makes a surprising appearance on TV’s “I Dream of Jeannie,” when Jeannie (Barbara Eden) conjured up Cleopatra, Henry VII and Franklin, played by Bart Green, for a birthday celebration:

1966 I Dream of Jeannie

The ageless Ms. Eden, is, in fact,  a direct descendent of the real Benjamin Franklin.


Franklin, this time played by Fredd Wayne, maked a TV appearance again only a few weeks later, when the perpetually befuddled Aunt Clara conjured him up for an entire episode of “Bewitched:”

1776, 1972

As the Bicentennial approached, Ben made his most well known appearance in the musical “1776.” Howard da Silva survived Hollywood blacklisting in the 1950s to play Franklin in both the stage and film versions:

1972 1776 Howard da Silva

I’m fairly certain the scene above was filmed in front of the copy of Independence Hall at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California. (Scroll down to the “Sincerest Form of Flattery” blog post to learn more about the many ersatz Independence Halls.)


A different actor played Franklin in each of the four episodes of of this TV series about his life: Willie Ames (from “Charles in Charge”), Eddie Albert (of “Green Acres fame),  TV and film actor Richard Widmark, and Melvyn Douglas as the elder Franklin, “The Statesman”:

1975 Melvyn Douglas - The Statesman TV


This reverent TV docu-drama featured an array of well known stars as narrators: Charlton Heston, Rita Moreno, Gene Autry, Jane Russell, Peter Graves and Mickey Rooney, with Rutherford Cravens doing a turn as Ben Franklin:

1995 Call to Greatness Rutherford_Cravens


Ben, played by comedian Andrew Daly, shows up in lieu of a male stripper at a bachelorette party for Phyllis:

a daly


In the most recent screen incarnation of Franklin, Tom Wilkinson won a Golden Globe Award for his portrayal in the HBO TV series John Adams, based on David McCullough’s book:

2008 tom wilkinson benjamin franklin John Adams


You can’t swing a kite in Philadelphia without hitting a Franklin re-enactor.  Ralph Archbold has portrayed Dr. Franklin for the past 35 years at countless events in Philadelphia, as well as in many TV spots and documentaries:

Ralph Archbold

In 2007, Archbold  played host for the Subaru of America, Inc. dealer meeting in Philadelphia. “People really seem to get a kick out of seeing me get in my Subaru,” Archbold said. “the All-Wheel Drive is a blessing.”


● An 1870 Japanese woodcut entitled “Furankurin to kaminari no zu” (Franklin and the thunderbolt):

1870 ca Furankurin to kaminari no zu

According to the Library of Congress description: “Print shows a man (Benjamin Franklin) and a woman sitting at a table in a house during a thunderstorm as lightning strikes a length of chain extending from a tub of water on the ground to a rod attached to the peak of a cupola.”

● A panel from a 1984 Kool Aid Man comic book:

1984 Kool Aid Man Benjamin Franklin

You’ll see nothing about Ben’s encounter with ye olde Kool Aid Man at the new Underground Museum at Franklin Court. There is possibly some obscure Illuminati conspiratorial symbolism here.

● The Classics Illustrated “Benjamin Franklin,” first published in 1949:

Classic & Greek Franklin

Used copies sell for $3.00 on Amazon; the Greek edition for $9.95. The mission of Jack Lake Productions, which is now reprinting Classics Illustrated comics, is “to publish and distribute wholesome, nurturing literature to young readers from the ages of 4 to 94 years of age.”

● The Special Edition cover of Time magazine in 2003, from a painting by Michael J. Deas, who also did the Marilyn Monroe postage stamp:


● A truly bizarre child’s Halloween costume, celebrating the elderly, balding statesman in every American child:



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