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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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December 6th, 2013
07:09 PM ET

Actors that portrayed Mandela mourn his death, honor his life

(CNN) - Father, husband, prisoner, president and reformer, there are many roles to play for an actor assigned the legendary part of Nelson Mandela.

At least 20 men have attempted to embody the icon, despite the challenge of replicating his world-altering scenes.

As the red carpets rolled out for Thursday night's London premiere of "Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom," the final act of the leader's life played out off screen. Mandela's two youngest daughters were at the premiere when they heard the news that their father had died.

Idris Elba is the last actor to play the South African leader during Mandela's lifetime, but for all who have played him, the opinion of Nelson Mandela and his family loomed large.

"They were very honest about what they wanted from me," said Elba. "They didn't want to see this, you know, silver-haired first pumping caricature of Mr. Mandela. But they wanted to see the man, the man behind the legend."

Producer Anant Singh began asking the future South African president for the film rights to his story before Mandela had even achieved some of his most iconic plot points.

"I began writing to him in jail," said Singh.

The famous inmate doubted his appeal.

"I said I think this is a movie that I have to make, and I have letters in his handwriting, you know, modestly asking if people will want to see a film about my life story," said Singh.

Two decades later, he had the answer. Audiences must now ask not if there is a Mandela film, but which they prefer to watch.

Actor Morgan Freeman has played God in "Bruce Almighty," and the president in "Olympus Has Fallen, but he says taking on Mandela for 2009's "Invictus" was the hardest challenge.

"Playing God is not a challenge at all ... The president? Who's the president? He's just a guy. Mandela's not just a guy," said Freeman.

Among the challenges is Mandela's unique cadence.

"The biggest challenge I had was of course, matching the voice. Because he has a very unique way of speaking," said Freeman.

And what the former president said in that voice is what makes the delivery of his lines so important.

"You elected me your leader, let me lead you now."

"This is the choice: either we submit or we fight."

"I have made my choice. I will not leave South Africa, nor will I surrender."

In 1987 actor Danny Glover stepped into the part for the TV movie "Mandela."

A decade later actor Sidney Poitier brought the story of "Mandela and de Klerk" to the small screen.

Audiences waited yet another decade for actor Dennis Haysbert's interpretation in "The Color of Freedom"

But it was director Spike Lee, who got the best casting of all. In a brief scene, at the end of 1992's "Malcom X," Nelson Mandela himself played a teacher, speaking to his class, inspiring them.

That man really was a teacher, on every stage he played on, and on every screen, his story will continue to shine through.

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