By Jarrad Saffren
George Washington’s legacy is quite literally the United States of America. So when Daniel Shippey became the nation’s foremost Washington impersonator at Mount Vernon in Virginia, the first president’s estate-turned-historical-attraction, Shippey often heard that he had big boots to fill.
Except those Mount Vernon workers and Washington fans weren’t talking about the Continental Army general. They were talking about Dean Malissa, the Jewish actor who portrayed Washington before Shippey.
“He set a very high bar,” Shippey said.
From 2004 until the outbreak of COVID-19, Malissa served as the foremost Washington impersonator in the nation that Washington fathered. Malissa did about 150 events a year, with half coming at Mount Vernon. He donned colonial-era jackets, collars, cuffs and lapels; he stood with Washington’s formal and upright posture and spoke in his equally formal diction; he articulated the first president’s personal credo of “deeds, not words.”
Malissa embodied the world-historic character before both Mount Vernon visitors and crowds across the country. In a stadium in Arizona, he performed for tens of thousands. At the National Archives Museum one July 4, he read the Declaration of Independence before a crowd of 500,000.
He also played Washington at a White House state dinner for former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and at a billionaire’s birthday party in Florida, among other notable events. One time, he even told a CIA director that he couldn’t talk to him about tradecraft during the Revolutionary War.
“I said, ‘You’ll have to forgive me,’” Malissa recalled of the conversation. “‘I don’t know you from Adam.’”
The director cracked up.
As Washington, Malissa didn’t merely recall lines. He embodied the first president. He was him. For the actor, it was never the role he imagined; but it became the role of his life — the only one he played for the last two decades of his career.
“It’s one of the most important stories ever told,” Malissa said. “It’s been an honor to be able to tell the story.”
Malissa was phasing into retirement even before the pandemic. At the time, Malissa, now 68, was pushing into his late 60s. He had also lost his father, mother and wife between 2017 and 2020.
Unlike Washington, though, who retired to Mount Vernon after his second presidential term, Malissa wants to keep traveling. He named England, Japan and several other countries as places he hopes to visit.
“I’d like to spend extended amounts of time in some of these countries,” Malissa said.
That’s hardly a surprise, as Malissa never does anything half-speed.
Before portraying Washington, he was a corporate guy for 26 years, working for Penn Ventilation, his family’s business, which manufactured industrial and commercial ventilation equipment. After graduating from college, Malissa started working for the company, rising from junior sales rep to senior vice president.
In 1999, when the family decided to sell the business after 71 years, Malissa had an equity stake. The 46-year-old made enough money to take some time off after the sale.
At the time, Malissa only knew one thing: He was finished with a corporate world that he never loved in the first place.
“I would tell people I was in business, but not of business,” Malissa said. “It was no longer enjoyable to me.”
Acting, though, had been enjoyable to Malissa. He just hadn’t done it since
high school. So after the sale, he tried it out again, landing the lead role in “Damn Yankees” at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, a suburb of Philadelphia.
Still, it was just community theater. And while the voice in Malissa’s head was telling him to act professionally, it was quieter than the voices telling him to do other things. Then, one day, the production needed a prop for Malissa’s character. So, the leading man went downtown to Hocus Pocus, a magic shop.
The owner gave Malissa the prop, rang him up and asked him a truly strange question.
“What do you want to do with the rest of your life?”
Malissa did not know the man. He had not told him of his current dilemma. But he explained it anyway, and the man had an answer.
“Listen to the quietest voice,” he said. “Because it’s the one you want but are most afraid of.”
“I left the shop with my head exploding,” Malissa said.
He pulled out his late ’90s cell phone, lifted the antenna and called his wife.
“I’m going to become an actor,” he said.
“That’s great,” she answered.
His wife agreed to move up from part-time to full-time in her education career so the couple could have health insurance. And Malissa started auditioning. He got small roles in network TV shows and commercials, as well as movies shot in Philadelphia. But in 2000, he met fellow Philadelphia resident William Sommerfield, then the foremost Washington impersonator at Mount Vernon. Sommerfield got Malissa to fill in for him when he couldn’t make an event.
Initially, though, it was just “another acting job,” Malissa said. Until he fell in love with both the role and its historical weight. The 70-year-old Sommerfield was looking for his own replacement. But before he started training Malissa, he gave him a warning.
“‘Washington will take over your life, if you’re going to do it properly,’” Malissa recalled his mentor saying.
After a four-year transition, Malissa filled Sommerfield’s big boots. Now, Shippey is filling Malissa’s. Mount Vernon has already named Malissa as Washington emeritus. The leading man says he will continue to portray Washington “selectively.”
“I’m thinking of the way Washington signed his letters: ‘I remain your humble and obedient servant,’” he concluded.
Jarrad Saffren is a staff writer for the Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of Washington Jewish Week.