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Movies Blog

Presidents in the Movies

by Scott Renshaw
- Posted // 2013-02-18 -

On this Presidents' Day -- just a few days before Daniel Day-Lewis likely will win an Oscar for playing a president -- let's ponder some of film history's actor-as-president curiosities.

Over the years, many actors have turned in indelible portraits of American presidents, though none has yet earned Oscar glory. Philip Baker Hall was a magnificent Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's Secret Honor; Frank Langella nearly matched him in Frost/Nixon; Bruce Greenwood wonderfully embodied John F. Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis drama Thirteen Days; and Paul Giamatti got an amazing showcase in the HBO miniseries John Adams.

Yet there have also been some far-less-successful choices in presidential portrayals. Jefferson in Paris cast Nick Nolte as the Founding Father, his performance as sluggish as the Merchant Ivory production turned out to be. Fred Ward made for a distracting Ronald Reagan in the Soviet/U.S. espionage thriller L'affaire Farewell. And Kevin Kline as Ulysses S. Grant was just one of the many frustrating things about Wild Wild West; he was more convincing as the fictional president in Dave.

At times, actors have made something of a specialized career out of parlaying their resemblance to a given president into multiple films. In the silent era, Joseph Kilgour was the go-to George Washington in a series of Revolutionary War stories. In the 1930s, Fred McGlynn, Sr. played Abraham Lincoln in three consecutive films: 1934's anti-Nazi propaganda piece Are We Civilized?, 1935's Shirley Temple vehicle The Littlest Rebel and 1936's Cecil B. DeMille production The Plainsman. Edward Herrmann played Franklin D. Roosevelt in a pair of 1970s made-for-TV movies, then later played FDR again in the 1982 film version of the musical Annie; he continues the tradition by doing FDR's voice-over in the upcoming Ken Burns PBS documentary, The Roosevelts. And Timothy Bottoms became as ubiquitous a George W. Bush as Will Ferrell, playing the president in the 2002 Crocodile Hunter film Collision Course, a 2003 TV movie about 9/11 and the controversial, short-lived Comedy Central sitcom That's My Bush! from South Park/Book of Mormon creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

But if you want to see versatility, how about actors who have managed to be cast as more than one different president? Jason Robards' presidential bearing landed him the role of three different presidents: as Franklin Roosevelt in the 1980 TV-movie F.D.R.: The Last Year; as Ulysses S. Grant in 1981's The Legend of the Lone Ranger and as Abraham Lincoln in the 1991 Gettysburg-themed TV movie The Perfect Tribute. Robin Williams will join the club with this year's release of The Butler, playing Dwight Eisenhower in the story of a long-time White House servant; he previously played Teddy Roosevelt in the two Night at the Museum films. Special notice, though, to Anthony Hopkins, who managed not just to play two different presidents -- Nixon in Oliver Stone's 1995 Nixon, and John Quincy Adams in Steven Spielberg's 1997 Amistad -- but to earn Academy Award nominations for both of them.

Kindly share your favorite, least favorite or most oddball presidential portrayals in movies. And Happy Presidents' Day.

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