It wasn't until James W. Foote started wearing a mustache and wire-rimmed glasses around the time he served in the Navy during the Vietnam War that the former machinist discovered his uncanny resemblance to President Theodore Roosevelt.
And once he dressed as the nation's 26th president to attend a Halloween party, Foote was off playing him for the rest of his life.
“He just loved it,” said Joni Foote, his wife.
From giving local speeches on Long Island taken from Roosevelt’s actual words, to appearances on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, at the White House and on TV with Steven Colbert, Foote found a unique second call in life.
He used his resemblance to the former president to carve out a niche as an impersonator — a term friends said Foote didn’t like — which made him something of a historical celebrity for doing reenactments of “TR” around the country.
Foote, who was born in New Jersey but came to live in Sea Cliff as a youngster with his parents, died in his sleep at his home on May 4, his wife said. The longtime Sea Cliff resident was 73.
At first, Joni Foote thought her husband was being unresponsive to her calls for him to rise and shine as a practical joke — something he was known for. But when he didn’t smile after she said she was going to call 911, she knew she really did have to call first responders, who confirmed her fears.
Having enlisted in the Navy after graduating from Glenwood Landing High School in 1968, Foote served on the aircraft carrier USS Constellation as one of the deck captains who directed aircraft taking off and landing during the Vietnam War. After the mustache-wearing Foote got his first pair of glasses, someone told him he looked just like Teddy Roosevelt, his wife said.
Joni and James Foote were married in 1977 and it was about that time that he began doing the Roosevelt impressions, his wife recalled.
But working as a reenactor wasn’t a way to make a living so after the Navy, Foote took a job as a machinist at Herbert Products on Long Island. He worked at the firm until 1994, when the company went through a merger and both he and his wife decided to leave.
After that, a steady flow of requests for Foote’s appearances grew. He was a regular at Roosevelt's Sagamore Hill residence, a National Historic Site, giving speeches from the large wooden wraparound porch facing the great lawn on the property. Foote also appeared at Roosevelt's birthplace in Manhattan and was popular on the dinner circuit, Joni Foote said.
Foote did voluminous research on Roosevelt, reading the many biographies and studying his speeches, always trying to be faithful to character he was portraying, recalled his wife. He once was asked to appear in a production of the play “Arsenic and Old Lace,” in which a mentally ill character who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt runs up the stairs as if charging up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. But Foote didn’t think that role was respectful enough so he declined, Joni Foote said.
Over the years, anyone walking by the Sea Cliff village green would likely spot James Foote sitting on the low stone wall, smiling, smoking a cigar and talking with visitors.
“He always had an interesting story to tell,” said former Sea Cliff mayor Edward Lieberman.
Foote could be a joker. Lieberman recalled a time that Foote was a scheduled speaker at a meeting of the local Lions Club. In character, Foote entered the room and told the crowd “he had not seen so many lions since he was in Africa,” referring to Roosevelt’s time as a big-game hunter. The remark brought down the house, Lieberman said.
In addition to his wife, Foote is survived by two sisters, Pam Foote of Texas and Debbie Foote of Florida.
A wake was held at the Whitting Funeral Home in Glen Head on May 11, followed by a private cremation service. Anyone who wishes to make a donation in his name can do so to the Glen Cove Christian Church, his wife said.