Actors Playing Presidents on the Big Screen - Rolling Stone
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Actors Playing Presidents on the Big Screen

Bill Murray, Daniel Day-Lewis, Charlton Heston and more

Courtesy Everett Collection; 20th Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection; David James

In anticipation of The Butler, the star-studded historical drama about longtime White House butler Cecil Gaines, we're looking back at memorable moments when actors have stepped into presidential shoes. From Rocky's trainer to a former baseball-playing angel, you'll be surprised by some of the actors who have played commander-in-chief. The Butler is in theaters Friday, August 16th.

By Lucy Meilus

Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson in The President’s Lady

20th Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection

Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson in ‘The President’s Lady’ (1953)

Heston, like Hopkins, is a regular when it comes to playing presidents, but to an even greater degree – he played Andrew Jackson twice. Five years after playing the seventh U.S. President in The President’s Lady, Heston played Jackson the general in The Buccaneer. The former film focuses on the scandal surrounding the disputed legality of Mr. and Mrs. Jackson’s marriage, perhaps a more relatable situation than the one Heston found himself in 10 years later – among talking apes.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

David James

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in ‘Lincoln’ (2012)

Undoubtedly the most notable presidential role to date, Daniel Day-Lewis' take on Lincoln earned him an Oscar and a Golden Globe this past year. Day-Lewis truly inhabited the soul of Honest Abe for the Spielberg film, revealing every layer of the 16th president's character. The portrayal resulted in high critical praise not uncommon to the Method actor.

Van Heflin as Andrew Johnson in Tennessee Johnson

Courtesy Everett Collection

Van Heflin as Andrew Johnson in ‘Tennessee Johnson’ (1942)

A popular character actor, Van Heflin appeared primarily in B-movies before starring as the 17th president in Tennessee Johnson. The film, which follows the failure to impeach Johnson, proved Heflin to be a true talent – he went on to play a homesteader in the 1953 western Shane and, later, rancher Dan Evans in the original 3:10 to Yuma.

Jason Robards as Ulysses S. Grant in The Legend of the Lone Ranger

Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Jason Robards as Ulysses S. Grant in ‘The Legend of the Lone Ranger’ (1981)

Most people would jump from Clayton Moore to this year's Johnny Depp film when tracing the trajectory of the Lone Ranger. In doing so, they'd skip 1981's The Legend of the Lone Ranger. This is with good reason, as the movie was something of a catastrophe. Robards, an award-winning character actor remembered best for his stage work, is the real takeaway from the film, as President Grant being held hostage.

Alexander Knox as Woodrow Wilson

20th Century Fox/Everett Collection

Alexander Knox as Woodrow Wilson in ‘Wilson’ (1944)

Alexander Knox was known for playing honorable intellectuals, largely due to his early appearance as the 28th U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson, in this biopic, for which he won a Golden Globe and received an Oscar nod. Knox was largely unknown before Wilson, but his standout performance in an otherwise flop really ignited his career. He went on to play a slew of leading roles, including a madcap judge in The Judge Steps Out and husband to Ingrid Bergman in Roberto Rossellini’s Europa '51.

Bill Murray as Franklin D. Roosevelt in 'Hyde Park on Hudson'

Nicola Dove

Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’ (2012)

Taking a pause from his ever-eccentric Wes Anderson roles, Murray stepped into the shoes of the 32nd president of the United Sates for 2012’s Hyde Park on Hudson. The film earned him a Golden Globe nod, but in general saw less than rave reviews. Peter Travers said of Murray, "He's got the look, the charm, the gravitas and the mischief. But his buoyant performance can't lift the leaden script . . . and the mis-direction."

James Whitmore as Harry S. Truman in Give ‘em Hell, Harry

Courtesy Everett Collection

James Whitmore as Harry Truman in ‘Give ’em Hell, Harry!’ (1975)

James Whitmore voiced an angel in the original Angels in the Outfield and played the lead in the 1954 monster cult classic Them! Taking on a real-world role, Whitmore portrayed Truman in the one-man play and film Give 'em Hell, Harry!, named after the 33rd president's supporters' slogan.

Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon

Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in ‘Frost/Nixon’ (2008)

In Ron Howard's retelling of the post-Watergate interviews, it isn't so much that Langella looks like Nixon (he doesn't at all; in fact, he looked more like Dracula than he does Nixon). But the way he captures the desperation of the 37th president in conversation with Michael Sheen's David Frost is jarringly realistic.

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Rip Torn as Ronald Reagan in ‘Airplane II: The Sequel’ (1982)

Known for playing TV producer Artie on The Larry Sanders Show and, more recently, Don Geiss on 30 Rock, Torn appeared in the poorly received Airplane II as the 40th president of the United States. He indeed bore a resemblance to the late president, and the two actually share a birthday.

James Cromwell as George H. W. Bush in W

Lions Gate/Courtesy Everett Collection

James Cromwell as George H.W. Bush in ‘W’ (2008)

The Green Mile and Star Trek: First Contact actor, known for years on stage and screen, played George W.'s father stern and reserved in the 2008 Oliver Stone film. Cromwell's judgmental H.W. may be a far cry from Dr. Zefram Cochrane, but even so, it is a rock-solid portrayal.

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