Editor’s Note: Rob Coles died Sept. 17, 2013, not long after this story was originally published.
For performer Rob Coles, Thomas Jefferson is not only his historical celebrity doppelganger but also his fifth great-grandfather. Coles bears a striking resemblance to the enigmatic Founding Father, sharing his stature, profile and Virginia dialect.
“Obviously, he was more than gifted,” says Coles, “but I got the red hair and the freckles.”
Performing since 1976, Coles is now based in Charlottesville, and he is not the only Jefferson impersonator in the area. Philadelphia native Bill Barker is the full-time Thomas Jefferson at Colonial Williamsburg, and Steve Edenbo portrays a younger Jefferson.
“I think there’s enough work for everyone,” says Coles. “When I started portraying Thomas Jefferson, I never thought I would be performing at weddings.”
Growing up, Coles knew that he was a Jefferson descendant, but his ancestry was not a big part of his life until he met an actor at Monticello. Coles worked as a nurseryman at the time, and the actor invited him to California to develop a two-man performance in which a modern-day journalist interviewed Thomas Jefferson. Trying to research the show out West, Coles found that the Beverly Hills public library did not quite meet his needs.
In character, Coles focuses on imitating Jefferson’s speech by avoiding contractions and using period language, such as referring to Martha as “confined” rather than “pregnant.” “People know I’m not Thomas Jefferson, but that’s the thing about theater audiences—there’s a willing suspension of disbelief.”
Coles came to the work with little acting experience, another quality he and Jefferson share. “Jefferson was not the greatest public speaker,” says Coles. “In his first inaugural address, apparently only the people in the first three rows heard him.” As Coles started portraying Jefferson though, he developed confidence, and after a few years he was able to turn the performance into a one-man show.
Coles tailors his performance to the audience. School groups are often interested in the Declaration of Independence; tour groups, in the design of Monticello; bar associations want Jefferson the lawyer; architects want the architect.
He often receives questions about the contradictions of Jefferson’s life. How could the statesman/scientist/architect/lawyer be so deeply in debt? Jefferson kept fastidious records of expenses but, for a variety of reasons—including that he inherited debt and faced trying economic times—he struggled with his finances.
“In his last years, he was in arrears with seven banks,” Coles explains. “It’s hard for people to reconcile: Who was this person who was obviously accomplished but at the same time couldn’t manage his own finances?” Coles points out that Jefferson’s tastes often exceeded his means. “If he were getting horses, they had to be matched bays. If he were buying wine, it had to be the finest French wine.”
Edenbo says that, as Jefferson, he enjoys the opportunities he has to connect with people. “Sometimes that happens when I’m on stage. Sometimes it happens through ‘Mr. Jefferson’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, which I consider to be part of the overall performance.”
Prompted by a question from an 8th grader during a show—“Who was Thomas Jefferson’s biggest enemy in the Second Continental Congress?”—Edenbo’s research led him to a resident fellowship in 2008 at Monticello’s International Center for Jefferson Studies. He learned there that the answer to the 8th grader’s question wasn’t as simple as it first seemed.
“One idea that he held consistently was the concept that each living generation has the right and responsibility to decide for themselves what is best for America,” Edenbo explains. “He believed that each generation should learn from and respect their predecessors, and then use that informed perspective to make up their own minds.”
Barker says that when portraying Jefferson he focuses on “his gracious manners, open mind, understated sense of humor and love of life, along with a thirst for knowledge and compassion for his fellow man. There is hardly any one thing alone that can stand without a myriad of other facets of his character and personality—and that is what keeps him fascinating through the ages.”