Actors Who Have Played Politicians

Josh Brolin as George W. Bush

So I bought the first season of The West Wing a few years back, and never bothered to actually watch it. I finally popped it into my DVD player last month, and now I am thoroughly hooked. I never watched it when it was actually on the air, but have slowly been accumulating the seasons, and really enjoy it. Of course, if you’re not a political buff, it won’t be of that much interest to you. Martin Sheen does a fantastic job of playing the fictional President Bartlett. It got me thinking about all the actors who have played fictional and real life politicians throughout the years. Sometimes the casting is excellent, while other times it falls short in my opinion. Today, we are going to take a look at some of the most famous individuals who have played presidents, both real and fictional.

For the real presidents, there have been some interesting choices of people who have played the roles. Two of the best in my opinion were Frank Langella as Richard Nixon, in Frost/Nixon and Josh Brolin as George W. Bush in W. Both of these men did a fantastic job of portraying these characters. A few of the ones I am more skeptical about include Randy Quaid as Lyndon Johnson in LBJ: The Early Years and Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon in Nixon.

Some other notable performances include Jeff Daniels as George Washington in The Crossing, Nick Nolte as Thomas Jefferson in Jefferson in Paris, Anthony Hopkins (why do they keep picking British actors to play American presidents) as John Quincy Adams in Amistad, Wilfred Brimley (yes, the Liberty Medical dude) as William Howard Taft in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Jon Voight as Franklin Roosevelt in Pearl Harbor, and Tom Selleck as Dwight Eisenhower in Ike: Countdown to D-Day,

Television portrayals of presidents have been dominated by Saturday Night Live, which has had some fantastic portrayals of presidents and presidential candidates. Some of the best have been Chevy Chase, as Gerald Ford, Dana Carvey as George H.W. Bush and Will Ferrell as George W. Bush. For serious roles, there are some interesting ones, including Paul Giamatti, who received a lot of praise for his role as John Adams in the miniseries John Adams. Greg Kinnear will play John F. Kennedy in The Kennedys and Josh Brolin also pulled double duty playing Ronald Reagan in The Reagans.

There have been some fictional presidents played by significant actors as well. For movies, Jeff Bridges played President Jackson Evans in The Contender, Michael Douglas played President Andrew Shepherd in The American President, Harrison Ford played President James Marshall in Air Force One, Morgan Freeman was President Tom Beck in Deep Impact, Jack Nicholson was President James Dale in Mars Attacks! and John Travolta was President Jack Stanton in Primary Colors (allegedly based on Bill Clinton).

Television portrayals of fictional presidents are not as substantial. Martin Sheen plays President Jed Bartlett on The West Wing, Geena Davis was President Mackenzie Allen on Commander in Chief, Jimmy Smits was President Matt Santos on The West Wing and Cherry Jones was President Allison Taylor on 24.

Okay, so that’s a lot of names and a lot of television shows and movies. With all this talk about presidents, likely the most famous portrayals of politicians were done by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who did Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, respectively. I guess the point of this, is that pretty much any actor can play any president. Some have very little in common with their character, but with the help of modern makeup, and decent acting they can pull off the role. But I think there needs to be more attention paid to who plays a character, and less attention paid to their name recognition.

Hopefully this wasn’t a dreadfully boring post to read. I think it is interesting to see who has played some of the most famous people in history. There are some great (and not so great) political films out there to be seen, and I am slowly working my way through many of them.

Paul Giamatti as John Adams


Frank Langella as Richard Nixon


Dana Carvey as George H.W. Bush


Martin Sheen on The West Wing


Geena Davis on Commander in Chief

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About Chris James

A student of political science at a Canadian University sharing stories of interest on Canadian and American political and social issues.

Posted on March 10, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Paul Giamatti as John Adams?!?!? Why not Tom Wilkinson in his Golden Globe winning role?

  2. I loved John Adams (I have rewatched it 4 times now). I also enjoyed Commander in Chief as something different. Haven’t watched West Wing but it is on the list. Great Post!

  3. Thanks Andrew. And Josh, Tom Wilkinson played Benjamin Franklin… he was never president.

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