The United States has had 44 different presidents, and each one has been portrayed in at least one movie or TV show, so we decided to look at every one and come up with the best. Here are, in our opinion, the best portrayals of real U.S. presidents in film and TV.
As America’s first president, George Washington has seen a lot of screen time since his term from 1789 to 1797. (Of course, not so much in the first 100 years or so when screens weren’t really a thing.) Washington has been played by everyone from Joseph Kilgour in a handful of silent films in the early 20th century and Jon Voight in the 2008 comedy “An American Carol,” to Peter Graves, Adam West, Jeff Daniels and Kelsey Grammar ( pictured) in TV movies. Barry Bostwick and David Morse also played George in a pair of miniseries, while Brian Dennehy and Walter Cronkite provided his voice in two miniseries of their own. Daniels and Bostwick appeared in the most acclaimed roles — in 1984’s “George Washington” and 2000’s “The Crossing,” respectively — with both earning Emmy nominations, the latter winning a Peabody Award.
John Adams hasn’t had nearly as many portrayals as his presidential predecessor, but he still had a few notable appearances on both TV and in film. George Grizzard took on the role in the 13-episode PBS miniseries “The Adams Chronicles” in 1976 and earned an Emmy nomination, with the series nabbing 20 nods altogether. Veteran actor Hal Holbrook played Adams alongside Barry Bostwick in the aforementioned 1984 miniseries “George Washington,” but it’s Paul Giamatti who probably owns the best portrayal as the star of the 2008 miniseries “John Adams,” based on the 2001 biography by David McCullough. The latter won four Golden Globes and 13 Emmys, with Best Actor wins for Giamatti at both.
Nick Nolte (pictured) played Thomas Jefferson to a mixed reception in the 1995 drama “Jefferson in Paris,” which was not much of an improvement on the lukewarm reviews of the 1963 TV movie “The Patriots” with Charlton Heston as Jefferson. More recently — and a bit more successfully — Sam Neill played America’s third president in the TV movie “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal,” Kevin Kline voiced him in seven episodes of the 2003 documentary TV series “Freedom: A History of Us” and English actor Stephen Dillane played him (and earned an Emmy nomination) in the 2008 miniseries “John Adams”
James Madison doesn’t get much love nowadays, but that wasn’t always the case. Actor Burgess Meredith (best known for playing Rocky Balboa’s manager, Mickey) played the fourth president once alongside Ginger Rogers as first lady Dolly Madison in the 1946 drama “Magnificent Doll.” A couple of decades later, the 1989 film “A More Perfect Union” told the story of the creation of the Constitution from the point of view of Madison, who was played by Craig Wasson.
Although James Monroe was generally regarded as a solid president, his representation in Hollywood is certainly lacking. This is best evidenced by the fact that President Monroe’s most notable portrayers have been Morgan Wallace in the 1931 film “Alexander Hamilton” and John Elliott in 1936’s “Hearts Divided,” two small-part actors who own more than 400 credits between the two of them. Charles Waldron (pictured) also played Monroe as the lead in 1939’s “The Monroe Doctrine,” but that was a short film.
This one’s easy, as Anthony Hopkins ( pictured ) famously played John Quincy Adams (post-presidency) in the 1997 Steven Spielberg drama “Amistad,” which earned Hopkins Best Supporting Actor nominations at the Oscars, Golden Globes and SAG Awards. Hopkins appeared alongside Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman and Nigel Hawthorne, with the latter actor playing another president that we’ll get to in a bit. William Daniels (Mr. Feeny of “Boy Meets World” fame) also played John Quincy Adams twice: first in the 1952 TV movie “A Woman for the Ages” and again in the aforementioned PBS miniseries “The Adams Chronicles.”
We previously stated that Charlton Heston played Thomas Jefferson, but the actor is known more for playing Andrew Jackson — twice! Heston first played Jackson in the 1953 biopic “The President’s Lady” and portrayed the former general, senator and U.S. representative five years later opposite Yul Brenner in the 1958 pirate film “The Buccaneer” (pictured). Prior to that, Jackson was also portrayed by Brian Donlevy in the 1942 Dalton Trumbo film “The Remarkable Andrew.”
You don’t see Martin Van Buren too often in movies or TV. In fact, the most notable Van Buren namesake in entertainment is probably the fictional gang “The Van Buren Boys” from “Seinfeld.” However, when it comes to actual portrayals, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Nigel Hawthorne’s appearance (pictured) in “Amistad” — especially since we already teased this role earlier. The screen time wasn’t substantial, but Hawthorne, an Englishman, deserves credit for his take on America’s eighth president.
William Henry Harrison got even less Hollywood attention than Van Buren, only owning small roles in the Henry Hathaway film “Ten Gentlemen from West Point” (in which he was played by Canadian actor Douglass Dumbrille), the 1952 Western “Brave Warrior” and the 1972 East German Western film “Tecumseh” (portrayed by Wolfgang Greese). Even then, these films don’t cover Old Tippecanoe’s time in office, but instead his term as governor of the Indiana Territory.
When William Henry Harrison died in office, Vice President John Tyler took over and essentially served a full term. Despite this unique situation (it was the first time a U.S. president died in office, and the rules of succession weren’t completely clear at the time), it has never really been covered in movies or TV outside of documentaries and the documentary TV show “See It Now,” in which actor Paul Ford played Tyler in the Season 5 episode “The Vice Presidency: The Great American Lottery.”
Presidents in the mid-1800s didn’t get much love, and James K. Polk is no exception, aside from bit parts in the 1947 Western “California” (Ian Wolfe, in an uncredited role), the 1959 Western “The Oregon Trail” (Addison Richards), the 1986 TV miniseries “Dream West” (Noble Willingham) and the Funny or Die short “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter Sequels” (Casper Van Dien). In fact, the most notable pop culture appearance of Polk is in the 1990 biographical song “James K. Polk” by They Might Be Giants.
President Zachary Taylor had his term cut short at 16 months when he passed away from a sudden illness, but he has still managed to compile a few portrayals on screen thanks to his pre-presidential fame as a U.S. Army colonel during the annexation of Texas. Allan Cavan played Taylor in the 1936 Western “Rebellion,” Robert Barrat played him in the 1951 Western “Distant Drums” and James Gammon (pictured, best known for his role as Manager Lou Brown in the first two “Major League” movies) in the 1999 war epic “One Man’s Hero.”
Good luck finding Millard Fillmore in the media, as the 13th president’s portrayals are few and far between. Aside from the previously mentioned "Funny or Die" short that also included James K. Polk, Fillmore’s only notable portrayal is a minor appearance in the 2009 film “Lost River: Lincoln's Secret Weapon.”
If you didn’t catch him briefly in the 2016 horror-comedy film “President’s Day” or Porter Hall’s portrayal of him in the 1944 biopic “The Great Moment,” Franklin Pierce has likely eluded you. Oh, unless of course you remember that “Bewitched” episode where Aunt Clara tried to conjure up Benjamin Franklin but instead got Franklin Pierce. Classic Clara.
President James Buchanan often takes the blame for allowing the U.S. to slip into civil war, and not many people wanted to see that on film or TV, with the apparently sole portrayal of James Buchanan on TV being a brief appearance on the British miniseries “Edward the Seventh” (also known as “Edward the King”). However, Buchanan was recently featured in a film…sort of. The 2019 comedy “Raising Buchanan” stars Amanda Melby as Ruth, a woman down on her luck who steals the body of President James Buchanan and holds it for ransom. The oddball comedy is amusing, as no one seems to care about the theft, and Ruth has numerous conversations with a living embodiment of the president played by the late René Auberjonois (pictured).
Old Honest Abe is easily one of the most popular presidents to be portrayed on TV and in film, with big names like Walter Huston, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Hal Holbrook, F. Murray Abraham and Sam Waterston stepping into the role before getting overshadowed by Daniel Day-Lewis’ acclaimed performance in the 2012 Stephen Spielberg-directed biopic “Lincoln.” That film earned a dozen Academy Award nominations and won two, including a Best Actor Oscar for Day-Lewis (pictured). Of course, we can’t go without mentioning some of the more creative and comedic portrayals, like Robert V. Barron’s small part in the 1989 sci-fi comedy classic “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and Benjamin Walker’s take on the 16th president in the 2012 action-horror film “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
For a long time, the standard for films involving President Andrew Johnson was the 1942 film “Tennessee Johnson,” which stars Van Heflin (pictured) and centers on the 17th president’s impeachment trial. The 2010 drama “The Conspirator” also featured Johnson (Dennis Clark), albeit in a much smaller role and is also about a trial — the trial of the only female conspirator involved in Lincoln’s assassination.
Serving the United States as both a heroic Civil War general and the 18th president, Ulysses S. Grant has seen a decent amount of airtime. On TV, he was played by Roy Engel on CBS’ “The Wild Wild West” back in the ‘70s, by Fred Thompson in the 2007 HBO movie “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and more recently by Victor Slezak on the AMC Western “Hell on Wheels.” On the big screen, Joseph Crehan is probably the most famous for playing Grant, as he did so nine times between the 1930s and 1950s. But Ulysses was also notably portrayed by Harry Morgan (pictured) in “How the West Was Won” (1962), Kevin Kline in “Wild Wild West” (1999) and Jared Hess in “Lincoln” (2012).
Not much to see here for President Rutherford B. Hayes. He had a brief appearance in the 1994 TV movie “Assault at West Point: The Court-Martial of Johnson Whittaker,” which starred Samuel L. Jackson and Sam Waterston, but that’s it.
The 20th president, James A. Garfield, was felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1881, and this is the premise of the 1969 Spaghetti Western “The Price of Power,” in which Garfield was played by actor Van Johnson. More recently, Garfield was also featured in the 2007 indie horror comedy “Netherbeast Incorporated,” where he is portrayed by the legendary Robert Wagner (pictured left) in a cameo appearance.
Because “The Price of Power” involves the assassination of President Garfield, it also includes an appearance by his successor, Vice President Chester A. Arthur (José Suárez). However, Arthur has a more prominent role in the 1932 biopic “Silver Dollar” (played by Emmett Corrigan), which is loosely based on the life of Horace Tabor, and an even larger role in 1963 Western “Cattle King” (also known as “Guns of Wyoming”). The latter stars Robert Taylor and Robert Middleton as two ranchers who have a land dispute and invite the visiting president (Larry Gates, pictured center) into the debate to make a ruling.
President Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms (making him presidents No. 22 and No. 24) and presided over a significant depression, and thus fictionalized versions of himself have made their way into films like Robert Altman’s 1976 Western “Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson,” the 1939 classic “The Oklahoma Kid” and the 1940 biopic “Lillian Russell.” However, Cleveland’s largest and most notable roles were on TV, first in the 1964 NBC anthology “Profiles in Courage,” in which he was played by the great Carroll O'Connor, and later in the TV movie “The Wild Wild West Revisited,” where Wilford Brimley (pictured) stepped into the role.
The 1952 John Philip Sousa biopic “Stars and Stripes Forever” tells the story of Sousa’s rise from a United States Marine Corps bandleader to a famed composer and national treasure. This includes a scene in which Sousa (Clifton Webb) performs at a White House reception for President Benjamin Harrison (Roy Gordon), which is the most famous and one of the only portrayals of Harrison in film and TV history.
William McKinley served as the 25th president of the United States until he was assassinated by an anarchist in 1901. The assassination has been covered in documentary shows like 2006’s “Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America” and the earlier miniseries “Captains and the Kings” (1976), as well as the film “This is My Affair” (1936). McKinley is also featured in the 1937 film “A Message to Garcia” and the 1997 miniseries “Rough Riders.” The latter probably had the most prominent role for McKinley — played by Brian Keith alongside stars Tom Berenger, Sam Elliott and Gary Busey — but even that part had limited screen time.
Whether it’s his trademark look, his rough-rider reputation, his adoration of adventure and the outdoors or his actual service as president, Teddy Roosevelt is loved by Hollywood. Notably, in the acclaimed 1975 adventure film “The Wind and the Lion,” TR is played by Brian Keith. Twenty-two years later, Keith would appear in the aforementioned 1997 miniseries “Rough Riders,” except he played William McKinley to Tom Berenger’s Roosevelt. When most people think of Teddy, however, the first actor who comes to mind is funnyman Robin Williams ( pictured), who played a wax figure of Roosevelt that comes to life in the 2006 comedy “Night at the Museum” and its two sequels.
William Howard Taft is still the only person to serve as both president (27th, to be precise) and chief justice of the Supreme Court — yet his appearances in film and TV are lacking. He had a background role in the 2005 sports biopic “The Greatest Game Ever Played” (portrayed by the late Walter Massey) and was one of numerous presidents included in the Emmy-winning 1979 NBC miniseries “Backstairs at the White House” (played by Victor Buono), but that’s pretty much it.
Robert Vaughn was probably the most famous actor to step into the shoes of President Woodrow Wilson, which he did in the NBC miniseries “Backstairs at the White House.” However, Bob Gunton had a larger role as Wilson in the suffragette historical drama “Iron Jawed Angels” (2004) — but not as large of a role as Alexander Knox (pictured), who played the president in the 1944 biopic “Wilson.”
Actors Harry Dean Stanton and George Kennedy both notably portrayed President Warren G. Harding, the former in the 1975 TV movie “The Legendary Curse of the Hope Diamond” and the latter in the 1979 miniseries “Backstairs at the White House.” On TV, Malachy Cleary had a sole appearance as Harding on HBO’s Prohibition period drama “Boardwalk Empire” and, more recently, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” did a fake trailer for a movie called “Harding,” in which the president was played by an inanimate wax figure.
America’s 30th president, Calvin Coolidge, was a minor character in the 1955 drama “The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell,” in which he was played by Ian Wolfe. More recently, actor Bruce McGill played President Coolidge in the 2012 epic “For Greater Glory (also known as “Cristiada”) which starred Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria, Oscar Isaac and Peter O’Toole.
Thomas Peacocke played President Herbert Hoover in the 1996 TV movie “The Angel of Pennsylvania Avenue,” which is about a family that ventures across the country to the White House to ask the president for help freeing its wrongfully convicted father. Prior to that, Franklin Cover also had a somewhat prominent role as Hoover in the epic 1982 historical drama “The Day the Bubble Burst.”
Edward Hermann appeared as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1970s TV miniseries and movie “Eleanor and Franklin” and later voiced FDR in the acclaimed 2014 Ken Burns documentary “The Roosevelts.” The 32nd president has been played by famous names like Christopher Plummer (“Winchell,” 1998), Jon Voight (“Pearl Harbor,” 2001), Kenneth Branagh (“Warm Springs,” 2005) and Bill Murray (“Hyde Park on Hudson,” 2012), with Murray ( pictured) earning a Golden Globe nod for his part. After playing Roosevelt in the Tony Award-winning Broadway play “Sunrise at Campobello,” Ralph Bellamy reprised the role in the 1960 film adaptation, the 1983 miniseries “The Winds of War” (which garnered an Emmy nomination) and its 1989 continuation “War and Remembrance.” A bit more recently, Canadian actor Len Cariou played FDR in the 2009 Winston Churchill biopic “Into the Storm,” and earned an Emmy nod.
We think actor Ed Flanders deserves recognition for how much he looked like President Harry S. Truman, the fact that he previously also played President Calvin Coolidge and because Flanders portrayed the 33rd president three times: in the 1976 “Hallmark Hall of Fame” TV anthology episode “Truman at Potsdam,” the 1976 TV movie “Harry S. Truman: Plain Speaking” and the 1977 feature film “MacArthur” alongside Gregory Peck. Around the same time, James Whitmore earned a Grammy and nods at the Oscars and Golden Globes for playing Truman in “Give ‘em Hell, Harry,” a 1975 one-man film based on the one-man play of the same name. But Gary Sinese (pictured) had the most success as No. 33 in the 1995 HBO film “Truman,” winning a Best Actor Golden Globe and SAG Award, as well as earning an Emmy nod.
Few remember it now, but Robert Duvall starred in a Dwight D. Eisenhower TV miniseries back in 1979 called “Ike,” and it actually earned five Emmy nominations. Twenty-five years later, Tom Selleck (pictured) took on the role of Eisenhower in the TV movie “Ike: Countdown to D-Day.” Among the other notable portrayals is Robin Williams’ role as Ike in the 2013 Lee Daniels drama film “The Butler,” and Henry Grace’s back in the 1962 war epic “The Longest Day.” While the other men in this list were all cast for their acting prowess, Grace, a Hollywood set designer, instead landed the role in the star-studded war film simply because he’s a dead ringer for Dwight D.
The charismatic, triumphant rise and sudden fall of John F. Kennedy has been immortalized many times — and because of the controversy surrounding his death, Kennedy appears in a large number of fictionalized or semi-fictionalized portrayals of his life. This includes the 1983 miniseries “Kennedy” with Martin Sheen as JFK, the 2000 film “Thirteen Days” with Bruce Greenwood, the 2011 TV miniseries “The Kennedys” with Greg Kinnear and the 2013 film “Killing Kennedy” with Rob Lowe ( pictured).
The likes of Woody Harrelson, Liev Schreiber, Rip Torn, Tom Wilkinson and John Carroll Lynch have all played President Lyndon Johnson, but two performances really stand out. The actor who played Johnson in the TV movie “LBJ: The Early Years” (1987) won a Golden Globe, and believe it or not, that man was Randy Quaid. In 2014, Bryan Cranston ( pictured) tackled the role on Broadway to rave reviews in “All the Way,” and he reprised the role in the HBO film adaptation two years later. Cranston earned Best Actor nominations at the Emmys and Golden Globes but didn’t win; however, the actor triumphed in the same categories at the Satellite and SAG Awards.
Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella (pictured ) were both nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and SAG Awards for their portrayals of President Richard Nixon in the films “Nixon” (1995) and “Frost/Nixon” (2008), respectively. Both films had iconic directors (Oliver Stone and Ron Howard) and were acclaimed overall, although neither actually won awards at any of the major events.
Other than the fact that he was the guy who took over for Nixon after he resigned, Gerald Ford didn’t have a remarkable term as the 38th president, and thus he didn’t have many remarkable portrayals in film. On TV, the most popular fictionalized version of Gerald Ford was Chevy Chase’s portrayal on “Saturday Night Live,” which characterized Ford as a doofy klutz based on the president’s famous fall while exiting Air Force One.
For the most part, all the portrayals of Jimmy Carter have been outright spoofs. “The Simpsons” have poked fun at the former president a handful of times, “Saturday Night Live” parodied him for decades (with Dan Aykroyd, Dana Carvey, Joe Piscopo and Darrell Hammond all getting turns), and a claymation Carter nearly won an Oscar. The latter was a short film, less than three minutes in length, that had a goofy caricature of President Carter lip-syncing to “Georgia on my Mind” while looking up at the moon. Producers Jimmy Picker, Robert Grossman and Craig Whitaker shared an Academy Award nomination when “Jimmy the C” earned a nod for Best Animated Short Film in 1977.
Ronald Reagan has been spoofed his fair share of times, but he was also dramatically portrayed by James Brolin in the 2003 TV movie “The Reagans.” Also starring Judy Davis, the film was ordered by CBS but ended up having to air on Showtime due to the controversy of its supposedly liberal interpretation of the conservative president’s term. More recently, Tim Matheson (pictured) played President Reagan to generally positive reviews in the TV movie “Killing Reagan,” based on the book of the same name by Bill O’Reilly.
James Cromwell gave an admirable performance as President George H.W. Bush in the 2008 film “W.” but Dana Carvey’s (pictured) impression of him on “Saturday Night Live” was so good that it caught the attention of the president himself, and Carvey and the Bushes ended up becoming longtime friends. However, our favorite portrayal of Bush 1.0 will always be his surprisingly major role (voiced by Harry Shearer) in the Season 7 episode of “The Simpsons” titled “Two Bad Neighbors.”
Darrell Hammond (pictured ) easily had the most successful and accurate portrayal of President Bill Clinton, as his impression is absolutely perfect and he has been doing it for 25 years and counting on “Saturday Night Live” and at events like the 2001 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. On film, however, the best portrayal of Clinton isn’t technically a portrayal of him at all. In the well-reviewed 1998 film “Primary Colors,” John Travolta plays Jack Stanton, and the actor is clearly doing a Clinton impression. The film is based on the book of the same name by former Newsweek reporter Joe Klein, who covered the 1992 Clinton Presidential Campaign, and Travolta even said he based his performance on the 42nd president.
Not only was George W. Bush a divisive president during a difficult time, but this same time period also saw an exponential increase in media and thus more opportunities to roast, parody, destroy or otherwise portray him in film and on TV. Will Ferrell did a hilarious impression of Dubya on “SNL” that led to a Broadway play called “You’re Welcome America.” The Comedy Central cartoon “Lil’ Bush” illustrated the president and his entire cabinet as youngsters in elementary school. Josh Brolin played a satirical version of Bush in the Oliver Stone film “W.” in 2008. And a decade later, Sam Rockwell ( pictured) played him in the Adam McKay film “Vice” and ended up garnering some Oscar and Golden Globe attention. And these are just the noteworthy examples!
Jay Pharoah was a master impersonator of President Barack Obama during his tenure on “Saturday Night Live,” but he’s not the best ever. Reggie Brown (pictured ) has played Obama on shows like “Workaholics,” “Hannah Montana,” “Real Time with Bill Maher” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” as well as feature films like “Barbershop: The Next Cut” (2016) and “War Machine” (2017). When in full costume, he could actually pass as Obama, and he has been making a living for more than a decade doing so.
As Donald Trump started to emerge as a serious candidate in the 2016 presidential election, Darrell Hammond of “Saturday Night Live” and comedian Anthony Atamanuik vied to be his top impersonator. However, neither ended up earning that distinction, as Alec Baldwin ( pictured) came out of left field and destroyed the competition with his authentic voice, accurate gestures and exaggerated facial expressions — and he actually ended up winning an Emmy for his recurring appearances on “SNL.” Baldwin has been doing the impression for four years now, and the election in November will determine if there will be four more.