A few days with the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) produced the following tally of presidents in the movies. Counted were feature films, short films, animated films and acted documentaries. Not counted were direct-to-video releases, made-for-TV movies, TV series episodes and television mini-series; neither were films, fiction or non-fiction, using only actual archival footage. Presidents did not have to be portrayed during their term in office.
With each president’s tally are recommendations for the best (or, in many cases, least awful) movie(s) in which that president is portrayed. The president in question need not have a major role in the recommended films, but significant roles did carry weight in the decision. Films are recommended solely on entertainment value; those looking for historical accuracy are generally advised to look elsewhere.
George Washington: You would expect a Revolutionary War hero and the Father of Our Country to appear in a lot of movies, and you’d be right. Sixty-three, in fact; the second highest total of all American presidents. Sixteen of those films were made before 1920, 42 of them prior to 1950. Has Washington lost his star power in recent decades? Worse, none of these 63 movies are much good. Arguably the best of the bunch: The Patriot (2000), with Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger. Terry Layman plays General Washington.
John Adams: John Adams has been portrayed 17 times on the silver screen. If TV movies and mini-series were included in the list, John Adams (2008), starring Paul Giamatti, would be the hands-down choice. As it is, I’d opt for the musical 1776 (1972), with William Daniels reprising his Tony-nominated role as the future second president of the United States.
Thomas Jefferson: Jefferson has been portrayed in 40 motion pictures, tied for fourth place among U.S. presidents. Try the aforementioned 1776, where he is portrayed by Ken Howard, or the charming Disney animated film Ben and Me (1952), where Jefferson is voiced by Hans Conried. Nick Nolte starred as Jefferson in the passable Jefferson in Paris (1995).
James Monroe: Monroe’s last characterization on film was in 1939, but it was as the titular character in The Monroe Doctrine starring Charles Waldron.
John Quincy Adams: Just three portrayals for John Quincy Adams, but one is a starring role in the excellent Amistad (1997), for which Anthony Hopkins earned an Academy Award nomination (Best Actor in a Supporting Role) as Adams.
Martin Van Buren: Only two portrayals for Van Buren, but one is a very fine performance by Nigel Hawthorne in the previously mentioned Amistad.
William Henry Harrison: For a president who served barely a month in office, Harrison shows up, not surprisingly, in only three motion pictures. In none, however, is he seen as president, being portrayed either as a general or governor of the Indiana Territory. None are worth going to any lengths to seek out, but Ten Gentlemen from West Point (1942) might appeal to fans of its stars, George Montgomery and Maureen O’Hara. Distinguished TV character actor Douglas Dumbrille portrays General Harrison.
John Tyler: John Tyler is one of only four U.S. presidents still waiting to be portrayed in a theatrical film; for the other three, read on. As the first man who had to assume the mantle of the presidency upon the death of the incumbent, Tyler might have made an interesting subject for a film, but his own mediocre performance in office is not the stuff of compelling drama.
James K. Polk: James K. Polk has been portrayed in five motion pictures, most of them pretty bad. For a laugh, though, check out the award-winning 2009 comedy short, James K. Polk Was @#?!ing Awesome. It's easily found online.
Millard Fillmore: Only three appearances, but one was in the aforementioned The Monroe Doctrine, in which he was portrayed by an actor named Millard Vincent. What are the odds?
Franklin Pierce: Pierce had a small role in 1944’s The Great Moment starring Joel McCrea and Betty Field. Pierce was portrayed by Porter Hall.
James Buchanan: Buchanan has yet to be portrayed in a theatrical film, as, perhaps, befits one of America’s worst presidents.
Andrew Johnson: Lincoln’s successor barely registers in cinematic history with only two portrayals, but one was a pretty good biographical picture, Tennessee Johnson (1942), in which Van Heflin plays the title role opposite Lionel Barrymore as Thaddeus Stevens.
Ulysses S. Grant: Ulysses S. Grant has been portrayed in 50 movies, third among U.S. presidents, by virtue of his inclusion in so many Civil War films. Lincoln (2012), in which he is played by Jared Harris, is the best, but Grant also features, played by Harry Morgan, in Best Picture nominee How the West Was Won (1962).
Rutherford B. Hayes: Hayes has seen only two portrayals on film. Buffalo Bill (1944), starring Joel McCrea and Maureen O’Hara, isn’t bad. Watch closely to see a brief appearance by Hayes (John Dilson, uncredited).
James Garfield: James Garfield has been portrayed in five forgettable films, the most interesting of which is likely 1969’s The Price of Power, an Italian-made “spaghetti western” influenced by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Van Johnson plays the role of Garfield.
Chester Arthur: There have been two film appearances so far for Chester Arthur, 1932’s Silver Dollar, starring Edward G. Robinson, being the most watchable. Emmett Corrigan portrays Arthur.
Grover Cleveland: Cleveland has appeared three times in the movies, including the James Cagney-Humphrey Bogart western, The Oklahoma Kid (1939), in which the president is portrayed by an uncredited Stuart Holmes. Holmes also played Cleveland in 1940’s The Monroe Doctrine.
Benjamin Harrison: Harrison fans have only 1952’s Stars and Stripes Forever to choose from, but it’s a pleasant and tuneful biography of bandleader John Philip Sousa (Clifton Webb). Roy Gordon does an uncredited turn as President Harrison.
William McKinley: McKinley three cinematic portrayals include A Message to Garcia (1936), starring Wallace Beery and Barbara Stanwyck and, in voice only, John Carradine as McKinley.
William Howard Taft: Taft had to wait until 2005 for his first portrayal in the cinema, in the entertaining historical golf film, The Greatest Game Ever Played. Taft was portrayed, albeit briefly, by Walter Massey.
Woodrow Wilson: Woodrow Wilson has been portrayed 11 times in the movies. Although little remembered today, the 1944 biopic Wilson won five Academy Awards and was nominated for five others, including Best Actor (Alexander Knox as Wilson) and Best Picture.
Warren Harding: Warren Harding, almost universally agreed to have been the worst U.S. president, is the third president who has yet to appear as a character in a theatrical film.
Calvin Coolidge: Coolidge’s two movie portrayals were in 1955’s The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell and 2012’s For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada. Bruce McGill, who portrayed Edwin Stanton in 2012’s Lincoln, assayed the role of Coolidge in the latter film.
Herbert Hoover: That Herbert Hoover is the fourth and final U.S. president never to have been portrayed in a theatrical film came as somewhat of a surprise to me. I guess people still resent that whole Great Depression thing.
Harry S. Truman: Harry Truman has been portrayed nine times in the movies. There are some good ones here: David Patrick Kelly played Truman in Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Ed Flanders had the same role in MacArthur (1977), starring Gregory Peck. The one to watch, though, is James Whitmore’s Academy Award-nominated, one-man tour-de-force as Truman in Give ‘Em Hell, Harry! (1975).
Dwight Eisenhower: It’s seven times lucky for Ike. Best: The Right Stuff (1983) with Robert Beer as President Eisenhower at the dawn of the Space Age, and The Longest Day (1962), with Henry Grace as the General on D-Day.
John F. Kennedy: Kennedy has appeared as a character in 25 motion pictures, beginning with Cliff Robertson’s starring role as a young Lt. John F. Kennedy in P.T. 109 (1963). Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), with Steve Reed in the minor title role, investigates the assassination of the president. Kennedy also makes brief appearances in the Academy Award-winning Best Picture, Forrest Gump (1994) and 2004’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate.
Lyndon Johnson: LBJ has been portrayed nine times in the movies, including in The Right Stuff and Forrest Gump. For campy fun, try the Adam West version of Batman (1966), where only Johnson’s hands are seen and voice (by Van Williams) is heard.
Gerald Ford: Ford’s silver screen portrayals are limited to only three, including The Commission (2003), a dramatized account of the Warren Commission with Corbin Bernsen as Congressman Gerald Ford.
Jimmy Carter: Five of Carter’s seven portrayals on film were performed by one actor, Ed Beheler. Most of those films are nothing to get excited about, but Steve Martin’s The Lonely Guy (1984) is an enjoyably bittersweet comedy.
Ronald Reagan: While the real Ronald Reagan appeared in dozens of films, a fictionalized Reagan can be seen in only 14, none of them terribly memorable. Best of the bunch (by far): Iron Lady (2011), with Best Actress Oscar winner Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Reginald Green (briefly) as Reagan.
George H. W. Bush: Most of George H. W. Bush’s character appearances in films were trivial, although James Cromwell did a fine job as Bush Sr. in W. (2008).
George W. Bush: The explosion of short political parodies in the digital age has boosted George W. Bush up the cinematic presidential rankings in just a short time with 34 screen portrayals. Josh Brolin gives a standout performance in the title role in W. (2008). For laughs, see Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008), with James Adomian as a stoner Bush.
Barack Obama: The majority of Obama’s 30 films are short political spoofs, few of which are worth mentioning, although Rock Obama: The Barack Obama Musical (2008), starring Matthew Harris, will entertain viewers on both the left and the right.
Cinematic Presidents Scoreboard
2. George Washington (63)
3. Ulysses S. Grant (50)
4. Thomas Jefferson, Richard Nixon (40)
6. Theodore Roosevelt (36)
7. George W. Bush (34)
8. Barack Obama (30)
9. Franklin D. Roosevelt (29)
10. John F. Kennedy (25)
11. Andrew Jackson (19)
12. John Adams, Bill Clinton (17)
14. Ronald Reagan (14)
15. Woodrow Wilson (11)
16. Harry S. Truman (9)
17. James Monroe, Lyndon Johnson, George H. W. Bush (8)
20. Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter (7)
22. Zachary Taylor (6)
23. James K. Polk, James Garfield (5)
25. James Madison (4)
26. John Quincy Adams, Willian Henry Harrison, Millard Fillmore, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Gerald Ford (3)
32. Martin Van Buren, Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes, Chester Arthur, Calvin Coolidge (2)
33. Franklin Pierce, Benjamin Harrison, William H. Taft (1)
40. John Tyler, James Buchanan, Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover (0)