45 fictional and historical US presidents in TV and films to brush up on for election night

by Alice Scarsi, Dafne Berdini, Ilaria Bernini and Stefania Sarrubba

US presidents and pop culture make a lively combination that has been exploited throughout the years, especially when it comes to TV and cinema. While all eyes are on media outlets to find out who is going to be the 45th president of the USA, our Arts&Culture editors have picked the best and worst presidents in TV series and films, to create a video gallery almost as endless as Clinton’s and Trump’s campaigns. Calm the election frenzy with this fine selection of 45 historical and fictional White House occupants (plus one special mention – the candidate who would deserve the victory if we all lived in a celluloid world). Beware of spoilers.

The human president

Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet,
portrayed by Martin Sheen in The West Wing (1999-2006)

He is shot like Kennedy, but he survives. He negotiates a peace settlement between Palestine and Israel, like Bill Clinton tried to do. He works towards the approval by the US Congress of a Social Security reform plan, something similar to what Obama did years after the end of the TV show. The masterful interpretation of this US president by the creator of the show Aaron Sorkin and actor Martin Sheen reminds the public of many real US presidents, but the long list of qualities he possesses risks making him too perfect to ever exist. His decision to hide his multiple sclerosis to the country, though, helps to show that he has indeed flaws like everybody else, and he can be scared, angry and even deceitful.

The brave president

David Palmer, portrayed by Dennis Haysbert in 24 (2001-2010)

David Palmer doesn’t have an easy life as a president. In fact, just before his election, Counter Terrorist Unit member Jack Bauer informs him that his life is at risk. Of course, difficulties don’t end with his election – during his term in office he will have to deal with a nuclear bomb on national soil; a hostile cabinet; a deadly virus in the hands of a terrorist; and an incredibly challenging wife. Nonetheless, he will make tough decisions, despite the pressures he’s under and the toll this behaviour will take in the end.

The efficient president

Conrad Dalton, portrayed by Keith Carradine in Madam Secretary (2014-)

As a veteran of the Vietnam War and boasting a long past as Director of the CIA, President Dalton has had a taste of life both in the trenches and within the Agency. This is good news, as during his period of office he has to deal with a nuclear crisis in Pakistan and the global economic recession. Oscar-winning Keith Carradine portrays a stern and direct president, whose traits are mirrored in his Secretary of State, the main character of the show, Elizabeth McCord.  
The worried president

Richard Nixon, portrayed by Stuart Milligan in Doctor Who (2005-)

Even the president of the United States finds it useful to have the number of a Time Lord in his address book. Richard Nixon doesn’t try to exploit the Doctor or use his TARDIS as a weapon (as many other powerful characters in Doctor Who have done before), but establishes with him a relationship of mutual help. Nixon here is depicted as worried and slightly paranoid towards the FBI. However, the script allows for some moments of comic relief between him and former agent Canton Everett Delaware III.

The incorruptible president

James Marshall, portrayed by Harrison Ford in Air Force One (1997)

James Marshall doesn’t negotiate with terrorists – not even when they hijack Air Force One with him on board. The president, a veteran of the Vietnam War, decides to take a hard line on the former General Radek by refusing to negotiate with Radek’s supporters after seeing the suffering the ex-general caused.  When one of these supporters, Ivan Korshunov, takes over Air Force One, Marshall has to protect both his family on the plane and the innocent victims Radek would make if he were to be freed. Marshall’s soldier’s training and experience as a pilot resurface in time for him to send Korshunov off his plane and have Radek sentenced to death.

The powerless president

The President, portrayed by E.G. Marshall in Superman II (1980)

This president will go down in the history of cinema as one of the blandest chief executives. When three criminals coming from outer space arrive at the Oval Office, he doesn’t hesitate to hand over our planet with a speech broadcast worldwide. The only acts of bravery perpetrated by this nameless president consist of asking for Clark Kent’s help, and letting General Zod, Ursa and Non know that “there is one man here on earth who will never kneel before them:” Superman.

The slimy president

The President, portrayed by Billy Bob Thornton in Love Actually (2003)

In one of the most British comedies ever written, the president played by Billy Bob Thornton is slimy and manipulative, ready to take advantage of his leading role in the free world to get what he wants, be it a policy with which he needs help, or be it a romantic target. At first, the newly-elected British Prime Minister doesn’t seem to have the guts to stand up to his American counterpart, but over the course of the film he manages to muster enough courage to be something more than just the submissive half of a US-UK alliance. The final straw, which finally makes him bite back in a polite yet snappy way during a press conference, is discovering that the US president made a move on his love interest. It’s cheesy and unreal, but works in a rom-com.

The inspirational president

Thomas J. Whitmore, portrayed by Bill Pullman in Independence Day (1996)

President Whitmore is struggling to regain credibility from the media and the public after being heavily criticised for the methods used to have his revolutionary legislation approved, when he is informed that not only aliens exist, but they are on their way to conquer planet Earth. Indifferent to his advisors asking him to retreat to a safe place, he shoulders the responsibility to lead the planet in what will be remembered as the War of 1996. In two days, humankind comes up with a plan that, on 4 July, saves the world – and allows the president of the US to deliver one of the most passionate, inspirational and unforgettable speeches in the history of cinema.

The contemplative president

Abraham Lincoln, portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln (2012) 

Historians have depicted President Lincoln as a silent, reflective and private personality who revealed precious little about his inner workings. Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln reflects and respects the way the president wanted to appear, showing a soft-spoken leader fighting one of his most important battles, the approval of the 13th Amendment. The most compelling aspects of this representation of the president lays in Lewis’s rough voice and in his long moments of silence, which are in contrast with the resolute and powerful speeches he delivers to reach his goal.

The sympathetic president

Richard Nixon, portrayed by Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon (2008)

After the Watergate scandal, former president Richard Nixon doesn’t have anything else to lose. On the other hand, David Frost is ready to prove that he is more than an entertainer. The days leading up to their historic interview become a chess game where the protagonists study each other and try to get the most out of the situation – be it a cleaner reputation or a new career. This Nixon shows the world a human side, especially through the private conversations he holds with Frost. He is understanding, resentful and even offended at times, but he never loses any of the other traits for which his real-life counterpart is best remembered.  

The president of a sacrifice

Thomas Wilson, portrayed by Dennis Glover in 2012 (2009)

The world is going to end, and there is not much this president can do. Once it becomes clear that the Mayan prophecy will run its course, President Thomas Wilson works with the G8 nations and China to save a small part of the world’s population to preserve the human race. As doomsday approaches, the designated survivors are evacuated while the rest of the planet’s inhabitants brace themselves to meet their end. Unexpectedly, among them is the president of the USA, whose final sacrifice puts him on equal footing with the rest of the world’s population.

The sentimental president

Andrew Shepherd, portrayed by Michael Douglas in The American President (1995)

Andrew Shepherd embodies moral values and integrity, the skills required for a perfect fictional president. He keeps his promises by saying in the film’s final speech that he will strengthen gun control and reduce fossil fuel emissions. However, he also shows a more private side. He’s a widower trying to overcome personal difficulties. His passionate political actions are in contrast with his early passive personal behaviour, but his renewed amorous passion will be rewarded with the reconciliation with his beloved Sydney Ellen Wade.

The flawed president

Jack Stanton, portrayed by John Travolta in Primary Colors (1998)

Joe Klein’s novel Primary Colors was inspired by Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992. John Travolta and Emma Thompson star in the cinematographic adaptation as President Jack Stanton and his wife Susan, respectively. Stanton here mirrors the former President Clinton by displaying a charming and likeable character, despite his flaws. During his campaign, Stanton faces allegations about his activities during the Vietnam War and alleged sexual abuses.

The controversial president

George W. Bush, portrayed by Josh Brolin in W. (2008)

Josh Brolin plays Oliver Stone’s 43rd American president. His performance sheds light on a more human and private George W. Bush, contrasting with the persona constantly under the spotlights. In this film, Bush’s personality and insecurities are revealed, and light is shed on his decision-making during the critical days leading up to the invasion of Iraq.
The unqualified president

Allen Richmond, portrayed by Gene Hackman in Absolute Power, 1997

Clint Eastwood is both director and actor in this gripping thriller. During a burglary, thief Luther Whitney witnesses the murder of a young woman by Secret Service Agents of President Allen Richmond. The woman turns out to be the president’s mistress. Although it is difficult to blame the president for such a crime, justice is done. The film ends tragically, with one of the agents committing suicide and the Chief of Staff being arrested. Last but not least, the president stabs himself to death.  The murder in this film is a hideous crime… but nothing that Frank Underwood wouldn’t do.

The manipulative president

Francis Underwood, portrayed by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards (2014-)

Frank Underwood comes to power leaving in his wake a trail of blood, corruption, blackmail and homicide. Despite his evil nature, he remains one of the favourite fictional presidents in history. The more his wrongdoings worsen during the four seasons of House of Cards, the more the viewers seem to be in awe of his character. His main strength lies in the ability to network and manipulate people – and of course, his partner in crime, Claire (Robin Wright), does half of the work.

The pop president

John F. Kennedy, portrayed by James Marsden in The Butler (2013)

This film follows the incredible life of Cecile Gaines, from slavery to the White House. He served eight American presidents during his tenure as a butler. Among them, there is a competent and passionate John F Kennedy, here played by an intriguing James Marsden. Kennedy was the youngest elected president and his subsequent assassination is a dark chapter in American history. Along with Jackie, he was very popular in media culture, their images inspiring crowds, movie stars and singers.

The former president

John Quincy Adams, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in Amistad (1997)

Amistad is an American historical drama directed by Steven Spielberg. It is titled after the eponymous slave ship that sailed from Cuba to the USA. While crossing the sea, there’s a mutiny aboard and the slaves gain control of the ship, overwhelming their Spanish captors. Their case is taken to the United States Supreme Court. Former president John Quincy Adams speaks on behalf of the Africans and agrees to defend their case. He strongly suggests that slavery must be banned, even though this would imply leading the country to the civil war.  While Hopkins’ performance throughout the film is brilliant, Amistad is worth watching for his final speech alone.  

The fierce president

James Sawyer, portrayed by Jamie Foxx in White House Down (2013)

Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum join forces in this action movie. Foxx stars as a brave president, who is working towards a worldwide peace treaty that would involve withdrawing all US troops from the Middle East. President Sawyer has to face terrorists who took over the White House and finds himself comfortable with speaking Russian, climbing an elevator shaft and shooting randomly at his aggressors. His character was assumed to be based almost entirely on President Barack Obama, but Foxx denied these allegations.
The inspired president

Jackson Evans, portrayed by Jeff Bridges in The Contender (2000)

This political drama by Rod Lurie sees Jeff Bridges as a fictional president of the United States, who tries to replace his dead vice president with a female candidate. Her opponent, Rep Sheldon Runyon (Gary Oldman), tries to put obstacles in her way. Bridges earned an Oscar nomination for this brilliant role, in which he takes the side of justice and democracy against misogyny and hatred.

The martyr president

Benjamin Asher, portrayed by Aaron Eckhart in London has fallen (2016)

In the sequel to 2013 Olympus Has Fallen, Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman try to save the president’s life.  The film sees Aaron Eckhart fleeing from deadly terrorists who wreck London. He shows his bravery by asking Butler to kill him before the bad guys do it. Harvey Dent would have known how to escape – maybe by flipping a coin.
The patriotic president

John Adams, portrayed by Paul Giamatti in John Adams (2008)

Adapted from David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, this seven-part miniseries chronicles the life of the United States founding father and second US president, analysing the evolution of his role over 50 years. Giamatti wears a wig to better resemble the president leader of the American Revolution. Intelligent and patriotic, he views the British imposition of high taxes as a tool of oppression and is among the key figures who helped America gain independence from Britain.

The president in love

Fitzgerald Grant III, portrayed by Tony Goldwin in Scandal (2012-)

Scandal, one of Shonda Rhimes’ most successful works, is all about dirty affairs at the White House – especially romantic affairs. The president Fitzgerald Grant III is in love with Olivia Pope, a young, attractive and smart lawyer who contributed to his election during the presidential campaign. He cheats on his wife with Olivia, and he wants to start a war to save Olivia from a mysterious kidnapping.  In fact, on several occasions he is ready to leave the Oval Office to spend the rest of his life with Olivia. They love each other and they hate each other – it’s a bittersweet tale.  

The president who’s fine

Merkin Muffley, portrayed by Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1964)

This movie, directed by Stanley Kubrick, is a satirical representation of the Cold War and of the big fear of a potential nuclear conflict between USA and Russia. A US general orders a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, so President Muffley calls Dimitri Kissoff, the Soviet president, to try and fix the situation before the bomb reaches the target. Despite a calm and amicable conversation, the nuclear catastrophe takes place… and the Soviets are prepared to protect themselves.

The unexpected president

Mays Gilliam, portrayed by Chris Rock in Head of State (2003)

Mays Gilliam is an ordinary member of the municipal assembly who happens to become a hero when he saves a woman from an explosion. After both the president and vice president die in a plane crash, the Democratic Party, wanting to look progressive, chooses him as a candidate in the election just because he is black.

The ignoramus president

Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho portrayed by Terry Crews in Idiocracy (2006)

Joe Bauer (Luke Wilson) awakes from a 500-year long hibernation in a dystopian Washington DC, a squalid place inhabited by stupid, gross and mean people. The former wrestler, Dwayne Helizondo, is now President.  He is obviously the right person to run this regressed America: he swears – a lot – and in his speeches, everything is about vulgarity and violence. Joe Bauer, coming from the past, is the only one who can save America.

The fighting president

Tug Benson, portrayed by Lloyd Bridges in Hot Shots! Part deux (1993)

The movie is the sequel of the 1991 Hot Shot! and continues with the Rambo parody started in the first movie. This time, the war hero Topper Harley (Martin Sheen) is leading a special rescue team in order to save Saddam Hussain’s prisoners in Iraq. As all the attempts fail, the president decides to join the mission and fight alongside his men. He also happens to find himself face to face against Saddam in a laser sword battle.
The inept president

Arnold Schwarzenegger, voiced by Harry Shearer in The Simpson Movie (2007)

As in several episodes of this popular cartoon series, the well-meaning but ultimately stupid Homer Simpson has accidentally polluted Springfield’s water supplies. The town is about to face a huge disaster and the president of the United States, here a satirical Arnold Schwarzenegger, is not helping the situation. In fact, he is depicted as a superficial man who takes random decisions just because he has the power to do so.

The waxy president

Theodore Roosevelt, portrayed by Robin Williams in Night at the Museum 1 (2006)

Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) is a divorced father without a job, who applies for a position as night watchman at The American Museum of Natural History in New York City. During his first shift, he discovers that every night, all the museum’s exhibits come to life thanks to an Egyptian relic. The wax statue of President Roosevelt, riding a horse, helps Larry with all the mayhem that ensues, as well as giving him important advice about his personal live. Savvy and inspiring.

The daddy president

John MacKenzie, portrayed by Michael Keaton in First daughter (2004)

John MacKenzie is the US President but he is also the father of a young woman who just wants to lead a normal life, have friends and date guys. As he is too busy with his re-election campaign to look after his daughter, he lets the Secret Service do that in his place. She breaks the rules and they have rather non-presidential fights, but love and family values always win, so you can expect a happy ending.

The rocker president

Richard Nixon, portrayed by Kevin Spacey in Elvis&Nixon (2016)

Kevin Spacey has a particular passion about fictional or true presidents. In this movie, based on a true story, he plays Richard Nixon during the time he met Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon). In 1970, Elvis asked for a meeting with the president, as he wanted to become a member of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The comedy narrates the relationship between the singer and a serious President Nixon in particular need of young Americans’ support.
The record president

Franklin D. Roosevelt, portrayed by John Voight in Pearl Harbor (2001)

Franklin D. Roosevelt was the only US president to serve for four terms, from 1933 to 1945, and he also was a beloved one. During his long governance, he led America during the difficult years of economic depression and World War II. On 7 December 1941, Japanese air forces destroyed the main American battle fleet with a surprise attack on the bay of Pearl Harbor. The following day, he gave a speech declaring war.

The infamous president

Harry S. Truman, portrayed by Gary Sinise in Truman (1995)

This TV movie, produced by HBO and based on Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough’s book, tells the story of the 33rd president, Harry Truman. The movie follows Truman’s rise from humble origins to his decision to use the atomic bomb for the first time in history. The film was loved by the public, and won the Emmy Award for Best Movie and Best Actor.
The upbeat president

James Dale, portrayed by Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks! (1996)

The least gothic of Tim Burton’s films sees the Earth being the preferred target of huge-headed, warlike aliens coming straight from Mars. Enthusiastic US President Dale tries (and fails) to save the day with overly optimistic slogans in a desperate attempt to establish a good relationship with the green visitors. In a parallel dimension, he would win the Nobel Peace Prize. Here, he doesn’t get so lucky.

The persuasive president

Ronald Reagan, portrayed by Bruce Campbell in Fargo (Season 2, 2015)

In the second season of the highly-praised series inspired by the Coen brothers’ homonymous masterpiece, protagonist cop Lou Solverson is assigned to protect President Ronald Reagan during a speech in North Dakota as part of his presidential campaign in 1979. B-movie star Campbell managed to grasp the Republican’s great oratory and ambiguous, charming attitude, even while urinating in a public toilet next to a rather sceptical Solverson.
The resilient president

Selina Meyer, portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep (2012-)

An adaptation of the British show The Thick of It, this HBO series deals with the political adventure of Selina Meyer, played by the multiple-Emmy winner Louis-Dreyfus. Vice president of the United States ‘Magic Meyer’, as she is referred to in the opening credits, has been working her way up the presidential ladder with great determination. Being diminished and assigned to trivial tasks doesn’t prevent her from occupying the Oval Office and taking over when the former president resigns.

The most intelligent president

Not Sure, portrayed by Luke Wilson in Idiocracy (2006)

In 2005, US Army librarian Joe, aka ‘Not Sure’, becomes a guinea pig for a hibernation experiment.  It goes wrong, he wakes up 500 years later, and becomes president in a terrifying, post-apocalyptic society where people are shallow philistines. The new president, who happens to be also the most intelligent person alive according to an IQ test, is appointed toward the end of the film. Not Sure aims at restoring the importance of basic cultural activities, such as writing and reading, while trying to please his electorate, a collection of consumerism-obsessed ignoramuses.

The private president

Franklin D. Roosevelt, portrayed by Bill Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson (2012)

Bill Murray’s performance enhances this comedy-drama, about the summer when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Hyde Park estate, London, a few months before World War II broke out. The film, directed by Roger Michell, reveals the unknown side of this president: his cheerful wittiness, his struggle with paralysis, his many mistresses. Among them, there is also his distant cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, played by Laura Linney, who narrates the whole story.
The pioneering president

Tom Beck, portrayed by Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact (1998)

There is nothing quite like a comet dangerously approaching our planet to prove the leadership skills of a president. Morgan Freeman stars in this Spielberg disaster movie as a brave, responsible head of state dealing with a threat to national security. Beck was one of the first Afro-American fictional presidents, way before Obama set foot in the White House, in a time when Hollywood was even less representative of minorities than it is today.

The big-headed president

Richard M. Nixon’s head, voiced by Billy West in Futurama (various episodes, 1999-2013)

In the sci-fi cartoon sitcom created by Matt Groening, pizza delivery boy Fry isn’t the only one who has been artificially preserved to make it to the future. President Nixon takes a second chance to regain his political power a few centuries after the Watergate. With hoarse voice and bushy eyebrows, the still-living head of the former Republican president becomes President of Earth in 2999, but it doesn’t save him from plenty of references to his troubled past.

The faux president

Dave Kovic, portrayed by Kevin Kline in Dave (1993)

US president impersonator Dave Kovic is forced to take the role of the actual President Mitchell when he is left in a coma after an intense extramarital encounter. The initially reluctant stand-in succeeds in reviving Mitchell’s popularity by backing up the mistreated and forgotten ones, but fails to adjust to the grinding political machine, its compromises and deceptions being too much to take for such a pure soul.

The awkward president

Baxter Harris, portrayed by Leslie Nielsen in Scary Movie 3-4 (2006)

For one of his last film roles, beloved comic actor Leslie Nielsen chose to be the inappropriate President Harris of the popular horror spoof franchise. A cursed tape, a sadistic killer and an alien invasion are not so worrying when compared to his many gaffes and his embarrassing public behaviour. A special mention goes to the scene in which President Harris sits at an elementary school while being read a book when he is informed of the aliens’ arrival, mirroring the real moment in which President Bush was told about 9/11.

The news-junkie president

Joseph Staton, portrayed by Dennis Quaid in American Dreamz (2006)

When Obama addressed American Idol fans to invite them to register to vote earlier this year, it was odd seeing a president taking part, however marginal, in a talent show. Fictional presidents are not new to showbiz, though. After being re-elected, superficial President Joseph Staton suffers a nervous breakdown and starts reading the papers. To prevent him from indulging in this alarming habit, his chief of staff pushes him to become the new judge on American Dreamz, an over-the-top parody of real-life talent shows. Staton has to cope with ruthless wannabe pop stars and morally challenged terrorists, learning that the former may sometimes be more dangerous than the latter.

The cocky president

The President, portrayed by Tim Robbins in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)

Tim Robbins stars as the President of the United States in the second film of the Austin Powers series. His role is a brief cameo, in which the nameless head of state manages to underestimate a terroristic threat by recklessly ridiculing the crazy scientist played by Mike Myers. He dares to laugh in the face of Dr Evil, the villain, only to hide with his staff under the table of the Cabinet Room once things get serious and the White House is about to be flattened.

The independent president

Mackenzie Allen, portrayed by Geena Davis in Commander in Chief (2005-2006)

She was chosen as first female vice president, but she unexpectedly has to take on the presidency herself when her predecessor, Teddy Bridges, dies after a cerebral aneurysm. Her mandate starts in turmoil, with her staff having a hard time accepting her new role. As time passes, it becomes clear that President Allen has what it takes to be one of the world leaders, and that she is not a good president thanks to or despite being a woman, but because she has the strong leadership and moral values Americans need. Although this series didn’t fully convince the public and lasted for just two seasons, the critics loved Geena Davis’ interpretation, and in 2006 rewarded her with a Golden Globe. Allen leads the country in a time of crisis, overcoming gender stereotypes in the process and becoming a great president.

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