The American Presidency is a popular topic in the world of entertainment. From fact based projects like “Elanor and Franklin” and “W.” to fictional stories like “The West Wing” and “Independence Day”, we are fascinated with what goes on behind the scenes at the White House. The President of the United States – real or imaginary - has been the central character in hundreds of movies and TV shows.
Daniel Day Lewis was just the latest in a long line of actors who have played Abraham Lincoln on film. The 16th President has been the favorite for screenwriters since the movies began. Honest Abe ranks first on the list of on-screen Presidential portrayals. George Washington, John F. Kennedy, Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon round out the top five. These men are iconic. Most people mention one or all of those names when asked to recall famous Presidents.
The list isn’t confined to the legends, though. Even the so-called “caretaker” Presidents got their moment in the Hollywood spotlight. Most of these Commanders-In- Chief had the misfortune of being in charge during a lull in the nation’s fortunes, during peacetime, or just before or after one of the larger than life Presidents.
We usually only know their names from the schools, rest stops, or public parks that were christened in their honor. Nevertheless, actors have taken on the roles of these men on film with just as much enthusiasm as Day-Lewis did (though with decidedly less Academy Award nominations.)
Here are ten of the most obscure U.S. Presidents to have been portrayed on-screen
1) Martin Van Buren (in office 1837-1841)
Portrayed by Nigel Hawthorne in Amistad (1997 )
This guy didn’t just have one tough act to follow, he had seven!
As the 8th President of the United States, Martin Van Buren took office right after titans like Washington, Adams (both father and son), Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Jackson. His biggest claim to fame is that he was the first President to be born as an American citizen.
President Van Buren’s term was unremarkable. One lasting impact is that his nickname, “Old Kinderhook”, based on his New York birthplace, evolved into people saying, when situations were just adequate, acceptable, mediocre or boring, that everything was “O.K.”
Unfortunately, Van Buren was on the wrong side of the slavery debate. That’s what drew the attention of Hollywood.
In 1839, African slaves, aboard the Spanish ship Amistad, staged a revolt while off the coast of North America, killing several Spanish crew members. The ship was captured by U.S. forces and brought to port. A Supreme Court case was held to determine whether the slaves should be returned to the Spanish or set free.
President Van Buren was opposed to their freedom. He made his wishes quite clear. Former President John Quincy Adams opposed Van Buren and actually represented the slaves in their winning cause.
In 1997 Steven Spielberg made an Academy Award nominated film version of the story, casting British actor Nigel Hawthorne as the 8th President. Needless to say, Van Buren didn’t come off as sympathetic in the movie.
For the few fans of Martin Van Buren, that definitely wasn’t O.K.
2) William Henry Harrison (in office March 1841 – April 1841)
Portrayed by David Clennon in Tecumseh (1994)
Van Buren’s White House successor, William Henry Harrison, was in office for a grand total of thirty two days. Nope, that’s not a typo, he lasted one month. Harrison died of complications from pneumonia shortly after taking the oath of office.
Surely a President with so few days served couldn’t have accomplished anything significant enough to be featured in a film, right?
Luckily, before becoming President, Harrison had distinguished himself as a heroic general during the War of 1812. He was particularly well known for a victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe in Indiana. His campaign slogan was actually “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”, a reference to his running mate, John Tyler.
Harrison’s main nemesis during the war was the Native American Shawnee leader Tecumseh, who the future President eventually defeated. After Tecumseh’s death, his legend as a uniter of Native American tribes grew. No fewer than four films have been made telling Tecumseh’s life story. Harrison appears as a character in all of them, sometimes portrayed as the villain. The most notable and accurate one was 1994’s Tecumseh.
David Clennon, recently known for roles in Gone Girl and House of Cards, plays Harrison with a dignity that befits a future President, even if it is one who barely had time to unpack his bags at the White House before his untimely death.
3) James K. Polk (in office 1845-1849)
Portrayed by Addison Richards in The Oregon Trail (1959)
His name might not be familiar, but President Polk actually accomplished a lot in his four years in office. Polk is credited with adding much of the northwestern and southwestern territory to the United States by both annexation and war. The Smithsonian opened during his term, as well as the U.S. Naval Academy.
In 1959, 20th Century Fox released a western, starring Fred MacMurray, called “The Oregon Trail.” In the film, MacMurray plays a New York journalist who joins a wagon train heading west to investigate whether soldiers are secretly being sent to Oregon to help capture the territory for the U.S. We already know the answer, because the movie opens with President Polk stressing to his generals how crucial the mission is. The meeting actually happened in real life, but in a big goof, the on-screen Polk is shown standing in front of a map that already lists both Texas and Oregon as U.S. states.
Addison Richards, a B movie veteran, plays Polk dryly, with a matter of fact air that gives no hints to the action about to happen in the film. The casting department cast Addison largely because of his striking resemblance to Polk, something they were aware of because President Polk was the very first Commander in Chief to have photos taken of him during his time in office.
4) Zachary Taylor (in office March 1849 – July 1850)
Portrayed by James Gammon in One Man’s Hero (1999)
As the hero of both the Battle of Palo Alto and the Battle of Monterrey during the Mexican-American War, General Zachary Taylor was swept into office when he ran for President in 1848. He was disinterested in the position, and died suddenly just sixteen months into it.
Like William Henry Harrison before him, Taylor had hardly any time to make a lasting impact on the Presidency. His war record, however, assured him that he would be immortalized on film.
In 1999, Tom Berenger starred in a film, One Man’s Hero, in which he plays the leader of a group of Irish-American Catholic soldiers who cross the border – without permission - into Mexico to attend Mass. They are treated with disgust and quickly branded as traitors by their commanders. They are labeled by the Mexicans as “Saint Patrick’s Battalion”
A subplot includes efforts to impeach James K. Polk (who is never seen in the film.) A U.S. General, Winfield Scott, has aspirations for the Presidency and pushes for the Irish soldiers to be summarily executed. General Zachary Taylor, played by the gravel voiced James Gammon, urges clemency. When public opinion sides with Taylor, Scott is disgraced and it’s actually Taylor that inherits the White House from Polk.
It’s just a shame that he didn’t get to enjoy the victory longer than he did.
5) Millard Fillmore (in office 1850 – 1853)
Portrayed by Millard Vincent in The Monroe Doctrine (1939)
Taylor’s Vice President, Millard Fillmore, was in the right place at the wrong time.
An anti-slavery advocate, he took office when Taylor died, just as the arguments leading up to the Civil War, a little over a decade away, were heating up. His independence and bucking of his own party’s stance (Fillmore is actually the last president that was neither Democrat or Republican, he was a member of the now defunct Whig Party) paralyzed his administration and cost him the shot at a second term. It also led to Fillmore being labeled as one of the most ineffective Presidents we’ve ever had.
Fillmore’s fervent support of a doctrine established by one of his predecessors, James Monroe, is what earned him the Hollywood treatment.
In 1939, MGM made a short film about James Monroe, called “The Monroe Doctrine.” The movie had a cast of future stars, like George “Superman” Reeves and Nanette Fabray. It chronicled the efforts of Monroe to establish a foreign policy that pledged our support of our fellow countries in the American hemisphere. In addition to Monroe, actors portrayed Presidents like John Quincy Adams, Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt.Millard Fillmore’s appearance is almost a cameo, but a critical one in the film, as it established the continuing support of the Monroe Doctrine in the 1850s.
In an interesting casting choice, Fillmore is played by an actor named Millard Vincent, who only appeared in two other pictures. Amazingly, his parents were big fans of President Fillmore and named their son after him in 1885.
Talk about being born for the part!
6) Franklin Pierce (in office 1853-1857)
Portrayed by Porter Hall in The Great Moment (1944)
By all contemporary accounts, Franklin Pierce was a kind and popular man. That helped him to rise to the Presidency as the 14th holder of the title. What it didn’t help, however, was his impact on the nation. His attempts to please both sides as the northern and southern halves of the United States inched closer to a split neutralized any chance of Pierce being an effective executive, dooming him to obscurity as a one-termer.
Pierce is most notable for what he didn’t have. After his Vice President, William King, died one month after taking office, President Pierce chose not to replace him, spending the rest of his Presidency without an official second in command.
Legendary director Preston Sturges decided, in 1944, to make a biographical film about Dr. William Thomas Green Morton, who pioneered the use of ether as anesthesia in operating rooms. The film was called The Great Moment. Since President Pierce had awarded Dr. Morton a grant in honor of his breakthrough, and that meeting took place at the White House, Pierce was written into the screenplay.
To play Pierce, Sturges went against the actual physical portraits of the man and chose one of his favorite actors instead. Where Franklin Pierce was a tall, strapping, handsome man with striking facial features that put those that met him instantly at ease, the man that brought him to life on film was the physical opposite.
Character actor Porter Hall made a living off of his looks. With beady eyes and a barely noticeable chin, he was often cast as the comic foil or as the villain. Indeed, just three years after playing President Pierce in The Great Moment, Hall was given his most famous role, that of the villainous store employee, Sawyer, who opposes Santa in Miracle on 34th Street.
Despite the acclaim Preston Sturges had earned for his earlier films, The Great Moment was a colossal flop. It seemed that most Americans cared just as little about the fictional President Pierce as they did in the real one.
7) Andrew Johnson (in office 1865-1869)
Portrayed by Van Heflin in Tennessee Johnson (1942)
Following Abraham Lincoln as President would be like taking the stage after Beyonce, playing shortstop for the Yankees post-Jeter, or having Jerry Seinfeld as your opening act.
It’s hard to top – or even match – greatness.
Andrew Johnson, who was Lincoln’s Vice President, took office after the legendary 16th President’s assassination in 1865. His was a tough task, seeing the country through the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, soothing wounds on both sides and starting reconstruction.
The best bet would for someone in that position be to play it safe and to ride out their term in Lincoln’s long shadow. Johnson chose the opposite tack.
Andrew Johnson’s ineptitude was so bad, that most polls rank him squarely at the bottom of Presidential lists. His opposition to giving African-Americans citizenship or guaranteed rights in the newly re-formed union, and his repeated attempts to thwart congress, led to his distinction of being the very first President to be impeached.
In 1942, the nation was still reeling from the sudden entry into World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor the year before. Hollywood began cranking out films with patriotic themes. One of them was a biography of Andrew Johnson, titled Tennessee Johnson. Because they wanted to help rally the nation, MGM chose to soft pedal Johnson’s embarrassing record. They made him an underdog instead.
As played by Oscar winner Van Heflin, President Johnson was shown as a man who tries to continue Lincoln’s valiant cause, but is frustrated by political roadblocks. Whole scenes, such as Johnson testifying for himself before congress, were fabricated. The producers even admitted such.
The whitewashing of Johnson’s record did not go completely unnoticed. Several groups urged boycotts of the film upon its release. It worked. Tennessee Johnson remains one of the biggest money losers in MGM’s long history.
Sometimes Presidential life stories are best left to the history books.
8) Chester A. Arthur (in office 1881-1885)
Portrayed by Larry Gates in Cattle King (1963)
Most of the Presidential film portrayals on this list have come in biographies or accounts of historic events. This is the first that involves a wholly fictional narrative, and it’s a classic western, too.
Cattle King is a 1963 film, starring Robert Taylor and Robert Loggia, about a range war in Wyoming in the 1880s. The central conceit of the film is that the President of the United States happens to be in town. The cattlemen argue their case for land rights in front of the Commander In Chief. The President who happened to be in charge at the time of the movie’s setting was Chester A. Arthur.
While his name has generally faded from the public’s radar, President Arthur was quite a revelation to his peers. Like several of his predecessors on this list, Arthur happened to be Vice President while the President died in office. In his case, it was James Garfield. When he assumed the Presidency, Arthur was still tainted by his association with shady New York politicians. Most of the nation distrusted him. This might have deterred others, but Chester A. Arthur pushed forward reforms and actions that left the country in a better state than when he voluntarily decided not to pursue a second term.
President Arthur, played by soap opera veteran Larry Gates, is absent from the screen for most of Cattle King, but does return for the climax, which involves a gunfight between the two sides of the dispute, with the good guys winning in the end.
Arthur himself doesn’t brandish a firearm in the scene, and no Presidents were harmed in the making of the film.
9) William McKinley (in office 1897-1901)
Portrayed by Frank Conroy in This Is My Affair (1937)
Here’s an even kookier choice than having the President appear in a fictional western tale; make him the centerpiece of a film noir gangster flick.
Seriously, the writers of 1937’s This Is My Affair chose William McKinley as the catalyst for a story where a Navy Lieutenant goes undercover, under the President’s orders, to bust up a gangster ring.
Robert Taylor (who was also in Cattle King) stars as Lt. Richard L. Perry. He does indeed successfully infiltrate the gang, but is caught up in a gunfight and murder. He is arrested and sentenced to death. Taylor hopes that President McKinley will then reveal his mission, freeing him in the process.
Unfortunately, McKinley dies before he can do so. Perry is saved, at the last possible minute, by the new President who reads a coded message from the deceased McKinley.
In 1901, William McKinley fell to an assassin’s bullet, six months into his second term. He was a pretty decent President, leading the nation though a severe economic depression and the Spanish-American War. He brought an optimistic spirit to the turn of a new century.
What diminished his legacy wasn’t anything he did wrong, it was what he did right. McKinley (and his party) chose the brash and outspoken young reformer and war hero, Teddy Roosevelt, as Vice President, in an effort to keep him quiet. When McKinley died, Roosevelt became the President. Teddy’s larger than life persona ensured that McKinley’s humble demeanor would fade from memory, as Roosevelt put his own unique stamp on history.
McKinley is depicted as a mastermind in foiling criminal plots in This Is My Affair. Until his final scenes, just before his off-screen assassination, British actor Frank Conroy channels Sherlock Holmes through McKinley and seems to delight in a derring do that you don’t usually find in White House set movies.
Teddy would be proud.
10) Warren G. Harding (in office 1921-1923)
Portrayed by Malachy Cleary in Boardwalk Empire (2010)
The last entry is from a TV show, not a movie, but it is one that has a great pedigree (Martin Scorcese as producer and occasional director) and is cinematic in scope.
Set in 1920s Atlantic City, Boardwalk Empire tells the tale of Nucky Thompson, a composite of real life figures that ran the corrupt seaside town of Atlantic City.
One of the great things about the show is that it weaves several actual notable people from the era into the fictional storylines, including a little known Ohio Senator named Warren G. Harding. According to the screenwriters, Harding used the influence of crooked officials and gangsters to gain the Republican nomination and, eventually, the Presidency.
The truth isn’t that far off.
With the United States still recovering from its involvement in World War I, serene and steady leadership was expected. Harding, who came late in life to politics, promised a return to normalcy if he was elected. Powerful bosses, criminals and brokers met in secret, then ordained Harding as their choice for the 1920 election. The public agreed with them, electing Harding to the White House in a landslide.
The first thing that President Harding did in office was to reward his unqualified and corrupt benefactors with plum positions in his administration.
This, naturally, led to scandal, which tainted his legacy. He died of a heart attack before finishing his term. In Boardwalk Empire, Malachy Cleary played Harding as an unimpressive schlub, fearful of his wife and prone to numerous affairs. Of all the 20th Century Presidents, Harding is one of the least remembered, so this portrait of him is definitely unflattering and comes close to caricature. Nucky Thompson even goes so far as to call him an imbecile and second rate.
Not even a trip to Atlantic City could help Harding with that.
It’s no coincidence that this list of obscure Presidential film appearances almost perfectly aligns with the list of the bottom ten Presidents.
These guys may have been poorly ranked, but they are still members of the world’s most exclusive club, and they can claim Hollywood immortality, so at least they’ve got that going for them.