Daniel Day-Lewis' "Lincoln" voice historically accurate?

Daniel Day Lewis stars as President Abraham Lincoln in this scene from director Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" from DreamWorks Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox.
David James/Disney/DreamWorks II

(CBS News) The image of President Abraham Lincoln is usually that of a tall man with a booming voice.

But in the new movie "Lincoln," which opens Friday, audiences will see that familiar image, but they're going to hear something different.

Pictures: Acting as Abe: Actors who have played Abraham Lincoln
Pictures: Iconic Lincoln portraits

Scores of actors have portrayed the United States' 16th president on film and television over the years. Although they all strived to look the part, using ample photographic evidence, none of them ever knew if they were able to capture the true voice of one of America's greatest orators.

Lincoln historian Harold Holzer explained to CBS News, "He died long before audio recording was possible, so we have no hints about what he really sounded like except in the reminiscences of his contemporaries."

Holzer, who has studied that written record extensively as chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration, said in his view, the actors have mostly gotten it wrong.

Holzer said Gregory Peck's portrayal in "The Blue and the Gray" 1982 miniseries is "much too deep!"

As for legendary actor Henry Fonda's portrayal, Holzer said, "Henry Fonda sounds like Henry Fonda. It's one of the best voices that ever was, but it's Nebraska, it's not Indiana or Kentucky."

Referring to Hal Holbrook's Lincoln in the six-hour TV series "Sandburg's Lincoln" Holzer said, " "None of these actors, maybe with the exception of Holbrook, ever really worked on the accent."

That is, until now.

In Steven Spielberg's new film "Lincoln," Daniel Day-Lewis takes on the larger-than-life character who, according to historians, had a smaller-than-expected voice.

"The most frequent things we read are that, he had a nasal voice, a high voice, but that somehow, miraculously, it floated over large crowds," Holzer said.

The Oscar-winning actor settled on a high-pitched, almost scratchy tone, very different from the deep, booming quality audiences have come to expect from pop culture. No one expected Day-Lewis to channel the Lincoln depiction in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," but some early audiences are still surprised by his voice.

At a Time magazine panel discussion last month, he tried to explain where it came from. Day-Lewis said, "Well, you look for the clues, as within any aspect of the work, you search for the clues, and there were plenty of them, but for me, if I'm very lucky, at a given moment, I begin to hear a voice, not in the supernatural sense, but in my inner ear, and then the work begins to try to reproduce that sound."

Holzer said, "I think it's extraordinary. I think it's uncanny, and I think it's chilling, and I wish we can have somebody come back from the 1860s and say, 'That's the guy!'"

Day-Lewis is famous for disappearing inside his roles, from a wrongly-imprisoned Irishman in "In the Name of the Father," to a ruthless New York gang leader in "Gangs of New York," to a 19th century California oil baron in "There Will Be Blood." He says finding the voice is always a vital part of his process. He said of developing his Lincoln voice, "I began to hear a voice that, as I grew closer to the man, that seemed to give me the full expression of his character."

With "Lincoln," that expression is winning over movie-goers much more demanding than film critics: historians.

Holzer said, "We wish we could hear him, and I think this is about as close as we're ever gonna come"

Watch Seth Doane's full report in the video above.

Recreating Lincoln for Spielberg's film was based in part on the best-selling book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." It's published by Simon & Schuster, a division of CBS. "TEam of Rivals" is the featured book for "CTM Reads." The author Doris Kearns Goodwin will join "CBS This Morning" on the web Monday for a Google+ Hangout. She'll discuss the book and her consulting for the film. Go here to find out how you can join the conversation.