A month ago, actor Jeff Daniels jumped at the chance to star in the A&E cable channel's movie version of Howard Fast's book "The Crossing," about Gen. George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River. Shooting starts Wednesday in Canada.
How hard could standing up in a boat be? joked Daniels. He was eager to take the part because, he says, "A&E is doing some quality low-budget movies these days and the script was excellent."
"The Crossing," budgeted at $4.5 million, "covers the week of the crossing, four or five days before and a couple days after going right into the Battle of Trenton."
History buff Daniels, outstanding in the historical hit "Gettysburg," fits the role physically. "This is a younger Washington. Not the Washington everyone knows from the dollar bill, from a portrait painted when he was much older.
"He was 43 at the time. I'm 44. He was 6-foot-4, I'm 6-foot-3. He weighed 209 and I'm 210. So I'll lose a pound." As for the facial resemblance: "I'm close. They'll use my real hair, add a hairpiece in the back with a ponytail. I've been bogged down in biographies like I'm cramming for an exam in a class I never went to."
Daniels found that legend and myth aside, Washington was a complicated man, from his quiet reserve to his volcanic temper. "I also discovered he was considered one of the best equestrians in this country at the time," Daniels says. "When Washington would pass by, it was so magnificent people would stop what they were doing and stand there and watch him ride until he vanished in the distance.
When asked whether he could ride, Daniels gave the producers "the standard actor's answer when asked if you can dance, sing, speak French, swim, anything: 'Of course, absolutely.'"
Of course, he was lying. The only time Daniels had ever ridden a horse was a bit for "Gettysburg."
Daniels went to Chelsea's veteran horseback-riding expert, Linda Nimke of Evergreen Stables, and told her he had to become an expert horseman in two weeks.
"I thought she was going to get a headache from rolling her eyes," he says.
She says, "I did sort of laugh when he said what he wanted to do." After the first day, she says, he was sore from chafing and in pain from inner-thigh muscle strain.
But Daniels rode over the pain for two weeks, working with her 1½ hours a day in high winds and cold, galloping and cantering over plains, up and down hills.
He caught on quickly, Nimke says. Equitation -- how one sits on a horse -- he got intuitively: the posture, rein-holding, position of the legs and more.
Nimke says: "It was also the first time the horses had been outside (this year), so they were friskier than usual. Jeff ... was determined and learned four years of training in two weeks."
Proud and still sore, Daniels says he can't wait until the riding starts "and all those New York actors who answered 'of course, absolutely' start begging me for help."