The Gospel Truth

Acting Presidents | March 14, 2013

Michelle Obama’s surprise appearance at the recent academy awards got me to thinking about all the movies in which some actor portrayed a real president.

I am not talking about the fictional presidents played by Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas or John Travolta.

I mean the real deal–Washington, Lincoln and FDR.

There should be an official or at least an unofficial award given to the man who has given the best imitation of being a president.

In looking at the entire list, I was surprised to see that all the 43 men, who served as president, have had someone portray him in a movie…even the relatively unknown Millard Fillmore, the 13th POTUS.

The POTUS no one knows

Fillmore’s namesake, Millard Vincent play him in the 1939 film, The Monroe Doctrine.

I am sorry I missed that one.

The worst mismatch of all on this list was tough guy Nick Nolte in the 1995 film, Jefferson in Paris.

Wasn’t Sylvester Stallone unavailable?

It is fitting that the first POTUS, George Washington was the 1st president played by an actor in a film–Joseph Kilgour who appeared as the first president in two silent features  in 1909.

A Washington actor appeared in 17 different films with the last one being David Morse in the miniseries about his vice-president, John Adams, starring Paul Giamatti.

I didn’t give Giamatti, whose father was the late Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bart Giamatti, any real consideration because he had several hours to depict John Adams.

I thought this was an unfair advantage.

It is not surprising that Abraham Lincoln received the most portrayals in films with the first one  being, Joseph Henabery in the highly controversial classic, the Birth of a Nation in 1915.

First Lincoln appearance

By my count, someone played Lincoln in 28 movies, the last being Tom Amandes in Saving Lincoln in 2013.

Missed that one too!

Of course it was Daniel Day-Lewis, who I believe is the only actor to win an academy award for playing the 16th POTUS in th eponymous 2012 film Lincoln.

It would have been a real coup had Sally Field won an award for portraying Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd.

Day-Lewis was not in my opinion a figure that easily evoked the presence of the real Lincoln.

I believe that honor should go to Raymond Massey.

His shaky, almost frail frame looked like Lincoln and his authoritarian voice was much better than Day-Lewis’.

Massey was Lincoln in two films–Abe Lincoln In Illinois (1940) and 22 years later in How the West was Won.

An actor, named Frank McGlynn, Sr. holds the record with three Lincoln portrayals from 1934-36.

Henry Fonda would be my second favorite Lincoln, based on his folksy voice and slender frame.  He played Young Mr. Lincoln in 1939

Hal Holbrook, twice and even director Walter Huston also played Lincoln in a film.

Another wonderful presidential portrayal was Charlton Heston’s depiction of Andrew Jackson, our 7th POTUS  in the endearing 1953 film, The President’s Lady with Susan Heyward as his Indian wife, Rachel.

The biggest stretch in this movie was the lack of any resemblance Hayward had to the pipe-smoking Rachel Jackson.


A stately character

Heston later reprised his role in the Buccaneer.

Having played Moses and Ben Hur, Heston gave a stately and almost lionesque stature to Jackson.

Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th POTUS received a terrific portrayal from Tom Berenger, who is much better known for playing a gimpy catcher in the 1989 classic comedy, Major League.

Showed great range as an actor

His TR was resolute, tough and played with enough self-parody to animate his real-life character.

Robin Williams’ played the Republican Roosevelt in a pair of comedies, Night at the Museum and  in a 2009 sequel, A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.

The movie was so contrived that his performance was rigid and mostly pedestrian by comparison.

Thomas Woodrow Wilson made it to the screen on just on two occasions, such was his pedantic and near aloof personal style.

These traits don’t resonate well on the silver screen, as would a president burdened with the soul of a preacher and the temperament of a nursemaid….no easy recreation.

I did see the 1944 movie, simply named Wilson, and starring Alexander Knox, whose reserved, almost melancholic portrayal stayed in my mind for over 50 years.

Alexander Knox Picture

A memorial performance

Another Massey, Walter, who was Raymond’s cousin played William Howard Taft the 27th POTUS. in something called The Greatest Game Ever Played.

Since the 7th inning stretch is largely attributed to the 300 pound Taft and he was I think the 1st POTUS to attend a real game, I would normally assume it had something to do with baseball but after an astute reader pointed it out to me, I found that it was a much more recent movie than I had thought. (2005)

And the irony is I had seen that movie about the great golfer, Bobby Jones.

One could argue that the title is a misnomer because I hae golf but I won’t go there.

It is odd that Taft is one of the relatively unknowns in American political history, even though he later served on the Supreme Court as well.

Several actors have also played Franklin Roosevelt.

I especially liked Ralph Bellamy’s sunny depiction of FDR  in Sunrise at Campobello in 1960.

I always like Bellamy who was one of the first actors I remember from my first television experience.

He played a savvy detective, named Mike Barnett…that was Barnett with two ‘ts’, which was a recurring line in the TV series.

Many will remember him more for the film Trading Places with Eddie Murphy and Don Ameche.

I think Jon Voight gave a magnificent performance of FDR as he struggled with his handicapped legs in one poignant scene in the 2001 film Pearl Harbor.

Harry Truman on the big screen deserves some comment.

Ed Flanders, a little known character actor gave a fantastic performance as Roosevelt’s third Vice-president and in the 1977 film, McArthur.

Subdued with a latent aggressive confidence

Gary Sinise, who as Lieutenant Dan nearly stole Forrest Gump from Tom Hanks, also played a very forceful Harry Truman in the eponymous movie, Truman, 18 years later.

John Kennedy had more than a few screen actors portray him.

The most impressive was Bruce Greenwood in the 2000 film 13 Days, though I have to confess to a fondness for the overly romanticized 1963 classic PT Boat 109, starring the always superlative Cliff Robertson.

I remember one scene in which the actor saved one of his crew, a former football player, by swimming with a rope in his teeth or something like that.

While he failed to capture the depth of LBJ’s mean-spirited narcissism, Randy Quaid, better known as Cousin Eddie (Vacation movies) or as Dennis’ brother, had the perfect physique to play the gangly Texan, who looked at times like a disconnected turkey.

Richard Nixon had two of Hollywood’s finest actors, Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella play him.

Langella stands out, maybe because of his 1977 Broadway role as Count Dracula in his attempt to capture the demon-driven 37th POTUS.

A disturbing characterization

Bill Clinton was better on TV, especially as satirized in many Saturday Night Live skits.

Scott Harriot did portray him in  the movie, Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, a title that just bleeds with juicy irony.

I think most attempts to portray George W. Bush, especially by the big elf himself, Will Ferrell failed because of the hostility embedded in the left’s dislike of the 43rd POTUS.

I wasn’t even aware of the pair of nondescript movies that gave us a celluloid Barack Obama.

I don’t see how anyone could play a better Obama than Obama himself.

I mean he acts as if he were playing at being a real president instead of actually being one.

Let’s be honest here’s a twice elected president—POTUS #44, who has been acting like a president for more than four years while leading from the rear, playing golf or campaigning while Benghazi burns…and whose presidential symbol is not the eagle or the sword but an empty chair!

Maybe it is a new form of method politics.

So now comes time for the nominations for best Hollywood portrayal of a president of the United States.

Michelle Obama comes out to read the choices:

Michelle Obama

A historical first

1) Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson

2) Ed Flanders as Harry S Truman

3) Raymond Massey as Abe Lincoln

4) Jon Voight as FDR

5) Barack Obama as himself

And the winner is….




  1. “The Greatest Game Ever Played” was a movie about the famous US Open golf tournament in Brookline Mass when a teenager named Francis Ouimette beat the great Harry Varden. The movie is excellent, or as we New Englanders say “Wicked pissah!”

    Comment by Peter A. Giuliani, HC '66 — March 14, 2013 @ 9:18 pm

    • You are absolutely right. I thought the title was a mistake and a much older movie. Didn’t occur to be that Taft could show up in a movie about a golfer in the early 20th century. BB

      Comment by bbprof — March 15, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

  2. No comments on this one. I did get the MR yesterday and am amazed at the depth of your knowledge of history. PP disgusts me and if there was anything I could do to stop its evil work, I would. Thanks .

    Comment by Mary B. Lachney — March 15, 2013 @ 1:58 am

    • Thanks for the compliment. I have three history degrees and am always happy when I get a chance to put them to good work. BB


      Comment by bbprof — March 15, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

  3. Massey wins hands down. I’ve read many books on Lincoln. You remember the discussion held daily on the old WGNU when Race came to the fore. Those callers who always made the case that Lincoln wasn’t the great lover of Blacks as portrayed…., Lincoln Douglas debates. Those who said: just by the fact of the emancipation proclamation decree, he was. I will not debate that today. I did enjoy your prose, I’ve gain knowledge, and even an old dog can learn new tricks.
    Thanks Bill
    Bango 53

    Comment by Mike Ellington — March 15, 2013 @ 1:21 pm

  4. Don’t forget Brian Keith as TR in The Wind and the Lion – great film with Candice Bergen and Sean Connery.

    Comment by John — March 15, 2013 @ 9:10 pm

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About author

After graduating from Holy Cross, Bill Borst earned an MA in Asian History from St. John's University and a Ph.D in American History from St. Louis University. (1972) A former New Yorker, he taught for many years in the St. Louis area, while also hosting a weekly radio show on WGNU from 1984-2006. He currently is a regular substitute for conservative Phyllis Schlafly on KSIV radio. (1320) He is the author of two books on social history, "Liberalism: Fatal Consequences," and "The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy." He just retired as the Features editor of the Mindszenty Foundation Monthly Report. In his 11 years from 2003-2013 he wrote nearly 130 essays on Catholic culture and world affairs. Many in St. Louis also know him as the "Baseball Professor," because of a course that he offered at Maryville College from 1973-74. It was arguably the first fully-accredited baseball history course in the Midwest.The author of several short books on the old St. Louis Browns, he started the St. Louis Browns Historical Society in 1984. In 2009 his first two plays were produced on the local stage. "The Last Memory of an Ol' Brownie Fan," ran six performances at the Sound Stage in Crestwood and "A Perfect Choice" ran for two performances at the Rigali Center Theater in Shrewsberry. His third play, "A Moment of Grace," ran six performances at DeSmet High School in January of 2011with First Run Theater in January of 2011. He is currently working on a 4th play, "A Family Way," which is a comedy about a happy dysfunctional family. He can reached at







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