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32 Of The Best Portrayals Of U.S. Presidents In Movies And TV Shows

 Robin Williams in Night at the Museum.
Robin Williams in Night at the Museum.

For this list of the best portrayals of Presidents in movies and TV shows, we’re talking about actual historical presidents, not fictional ones. So while you won’t find awesome performances like Martin Sheen as Jeb Bartlett on The West Wing or Terry Crews as Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Camacho in Idiocracy, there are some absolutely astounding performances on this list. From George Washington to Joe Biden, almost every president has appeared on film, and this is a list of some of our favorites.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln
Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis As Abraham Lincoln In Lincoln

On the one hand, it’s surprising that an Englishman is responsible for one of the best, if not the best portrayal of a U.S. president. On the other hand, it’s hardly surprising that it was Daniel Day-Lewis playing the part of Lincoln. One of the greatest actors of all time playing one of the greatest presidents is a recipe for greatness, and that is what is achieved in Stephen Speilberg’s Lincoln. For the role, Day-Lewis won his very deserved third Oscar, becoming the only actor to do so.

Ben Stiller and Robin Williams in Night at the Museum.
Ben Stiller and Robin Williams in Night at the Museum.

Robin Williams As Theodore Roosevelt In Night At The Museum

It’s important to remember that even though it takes place in a museum, Night At The Museum is not a documentary, nor is it really trying to be all that historically accurate. That makes Robin Williams’ role as the great Theodore Roosevelt make sense, right? Williams wasn’t going for historical accuracy, he was going for what he does best, comedy. It sure does work too, it’s hilarious and wonderful.

Alan Rickman And Forest Whitaker In The Butler
Alan Rickman And Forest Whitaker In The Butler

Alan Rickman As Ronald Reagan In The Butler

Lee Daniels’ The Butler has a slew of great actors playing presidents. The final president that the titular butler serves is Ronald Reagan, played by Alan Rickman. The late, great Rickman doesn’t go for an impression of Reagan, and that was a great decision, it would have come off as cartoonish. Instead, he plays the role in an atypically (for Rickman) understated way, getting the vibe of Reagan, if not the exact voice or mannerisms.

Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live
Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live

Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford In Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live has been sending up presidents for almost five decades, from Gerald Ford to Joe Biden. The first SNL player to do his impression of one was, of course, Chevy Chase playing Gerry Ford in the first season. There is really nothing that resembles the actual President Ford, but Chase is brilliant still, grabbing one stereotype of Ford as the bumbling, uncoordinated fool, and maxing it out. Almost every episode included Chase falling over as Ford, or struggling to answer questions in a debate, as in the classic “There would be no math” sketch.

Paul Giamatti As John Adams
Paul Giamatti As John Adams

Paul Giamatti As John Adams In John Adams

The second president of the United States, John Adams, is so often overlooked in history, overshadowed by his predecessor George Washington, and his successor, Thomas Jefferson. Adams, however, played a huge role in the founding of the nation, so it’s wonderful that HBO made the miniseries John Adams and even better that Paul Giamatti was cast to play Adams. Giamatti is as good an actor as anyone of his generation and he nails how Adams must have felt to contribute so much, yet still live in the shadow of giants.

Bruce Greenwood As John F. Kennedy
Bruce Greenwood As John F. Kennedy

Bruce Greenwood As John F. Kennedy.In Thirteen Days

Thirteen Days is really about Kenneth O'Donnell, a White House advisor played by Kevin Costner during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but Bruce Greenwood is great as John F. Kennedy. Like others on this list, he doesn’t play up an impression too much, with good results.

Gary Oldman As Harry S. Truman In Oppenheimer
Gary Oldman As Harry S. Truman In Oppenheimer

Gary Oldman As Harry S. Truman In Oppenheimer

Gary Oldman’s turn as Harry S. Truman in the wildly successful Oppenheimer doesn’t last long, but boy is it fantastic. He plays the part perfectly, hidden behind great makeup, but distinctly Oldman. Truman famously wrestled with the decision to drop the bomb on Japan before and after he made it, living with it for the rest of his life, so his reaction to Oppenheimer’s (Cillian Murphy) regret is spot on.

Michael Sheen and Frank Langella in mid-interview in Frost/Nixon.
Michael Sheen and Frank Langella in mid-interview in Frost/Nixon.

Frank Langella As Richard Nixon In Frost/Nixon

There is a good reason that Frank Langella was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon. He’s fantastic. Nixon is a president that would be so easy to fall into a cartoonish impression of, as many people do. Not Langella though. Instead, he captures the essence of Nixon’s cynicism and petulance, with just enough of a straight impression that you never forget who he is playing. It’s perfect.

Alec Baldwin As Donald Trump On Saturday Night Live
Alec Baldwin As Donald Trump On Saturday Night Live

Alec Baldwin As Donald Trump On Saturday Night Live

Sure to be the most controversial on this list is Alec Baldwin’s impression of Donald Trump on SNL. Baldwin delighted Trump’s critics and angered his fans, but in the end, it’s actually a really good comedic impression, and not what you would expect from the actor.

Anthony Mackie in All the Way
Anthony Mackie in All the Way

Bryan Cranston As Lyndon B. Johnson In All The Way

HBO’s All The Way is a movie that kind of flew under the radar for a lot of people, and for those who missed it, they should definitely seek it out. Especially if they are fans of Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston who plays President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Cranston clearly studied the mannerisms and voice of the controversial president, because he nails the role, alongside Anthony Mackie, who plays Dr. Martin Luther King.

Phil Hartman's President Clinton smiles while flanked by Kevin Nealon and Tim Meadows on SNL.
Phil Hartman's President Clinton smiles while flanked by Kevin Nealon and Tim Meadows on SNL.

Phil Hartman As Bill Clinton In Saturday Night Live

A few different players on SNL took a shot at a Bill Clinton impression, but the best has to be the late, great Phil Hartman. If there is one skit to check out, it has to be the one with Hartman talking to people in a McDonald's, and eating their food, while supposedly in the middle of a jog with his Secret Service agents. It’s comedic gold.

Sam Rockwell in Vice
Sam Rockwell in Vice

Sam Rockwell As George W. Bush In Vice

There are a lot of over-the-top impressions of George W. Bush out there. It’s easy to go too far with it. That’s what makes Sam Rockwell’s version of the 43rd president so great, it’s restrained but still comedic. It’s the perfect foil for Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney in Vice.

Stephen Dillane As Thomas Jefferson In John Adams
Stephen Dillane As Thomas Jefferson In John Adams

Stephen Dillane As Thomas Jefferson In John Adams

HBO’s miniseries John Adams gave us a few great portrayals of U.S. Presidents, including Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson. In this case, it’s mostly Jefferson before he was president and his fundamental squabbles with Adams in the early days of the republic. Dillane is masterful as Jefferson in an understated, smoldering performance.

Michael C. Hall As John F. Kennedy In The Crown
Michael C. Hall As John F. Kennedy In The Crown

Michael C. Hall As John F. Kennedy In The Crown

The Crown not only gave fans excellent portrayals of royalty but prime ministers and presidents as well. Michael C. Hall plays John Kennedy in Season 2 of the Netflix series, as the young president makes a number of protocol mistakes when meeting Queen Elizabeth for the first time. It’s not a straight impression, but it perfectly evokes the grandeur of Kennedy and his wife Jackie everyone felt that they met at the time, even the queen and Prince Philip.

John Travolta in Primary Colors.
John Travolta in Primary Colors.

John Travolta As “Bill Clinton” In Primary Colors

The book that the movie Primary Colors is based on was written by a then-anonymous author (who turned out to be writer Joe Klein), and it technically wasn’t about Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. Of course, it was pretty thinly disguised as fiction, and in the movie, Gov. Jack Stanton is obviously supposed to be Bill Clinton. John Travolta, who played the Clinton analog, is brilliant. It’s one of his best roles, giving off just enough of Clinton to remind audiences what the movie is really about.

Christopher Jackson As George Washington In Hamilton
Christopher Jackson As George Washington In Hamilton

Christopher Jackson As George Washington In Hamilton

When the music Hamilton finally got a screen version in 2020 on Disney+, it was of the stage show by the original Broadway cast edited together from three performances in 2016. This cast included the great Christopher Jackson as George Washington. While you certainly can’t compare this portrayal to what Washington was in real life (though we want to believe Washington was a great rapper), it’s still a show-stopping performance and more than worthy to be included on this list.

Anthony Hopkins As John Quincy Adams In Amistad
Anthony Hopkins As John Quincy Adams In Amistad

Anthony Hopkins As John Quincy Adams In Amistad

Steven Spielberg’s underrated Amistad has two great performances from actors as presidents, including Game of Thrones cast member Nigel Hawthorne as the rarely portrayed Martin Van Buren. The star though, is Sir Anthony Hopkins playing John Quincy Adams in his later years, post-presidency, arguing the case in favor of the enslaved men in front of the Supreme Court.

Dana Carvey As George H.W. Bush On Saturday Night Live
Dana Carvey As George H.W. Bush On Saturday Night Live

Dana Carvey As George H.W. Bush On Saturday Night Live

Of all the presidential impressions on Saturday Night Live maybe the greatest of all time is Dana Carvey’s take on George H.W. Bush. He created so many viral moments, even in a time before the internet. Who doesn’t hear “A thousand points of life” and not crack up?

Tom Selleck As Dwight Eisenhower In Ike: Countdown to D-Day
Tom Selleck As Dwight Eisenhower In Ike: Countdown to D-Day

Tom Selleck As Dwight Eisenhower In Ike: Countdown to D-Day

Tom Selleck’s mustache has become the stuff of legends but in one of his best roles, as President Dwight Eisenhower in Ike: Countdown to D-Day. Without the hair on his face (and the hair on his head), the Magnum P.I. star looks completely different, and it pays off playing the former president in the years before his presidency when he was the Supreme Allied Commander in World War II.

Anthony Hopkins As Richard Nixon In Nixon
Anthony Hopkins As Richard Nixon In Nixon

Anthony Hopkins As Richard Nixon In Nixon

Director Oliver Stone’s Nixon is a dark movie about a dark time in US history. At the center of that darkness is Richard Nixon, played here brilliantly by Sir Anthony Hopkins. While some have criticized the movie for its historical accuracy, no one can complain about Hopkins’ take on the disgraced former president, as he plays it all doom and gloom that the president and the country felt.

Edward Herrmann as Franklin D. Roosevelt In Annie
Edward Herrmann as Franklin D. Roosevelt In Annie

Edward Herrmann as Franklin D. Roosevelt In Annie

It's not the biggest role, and it's not a historically accurate portrayal, of course, but Edward Herrmann singing "Tomorrow" with Annie (Aileen Quinn) is worthy of mention on this list. It is truly iconic.

Gary Sinise as Harry S. Truman In Truman
Gary Sinise as Harry S. Truman In Truman

Gary Sinise as Harry S. Truman In Truman

HBO's Truman from 1995, starring Gary Sinise as the titular president is woefully underappreciated, much like Harry S. Truman's presidency was for years. The decision to drop the bomb defines his legacy, and this movie, though it follows him through his whole career.

Will Ferrell tells a story, while wearing a presidential jacket, in You're Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush.
Will Ferrell tells a story, while wearing a presidential jacket, in You're Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush.

Will Ferrell As George W. Bush On Saturday Night Live

Will Ferrell's impression of George W. Bush was so iconic, it invented a word: Strategery. There really isn't much more you can say to compliment the comedian. He was so good as "Dubya" that it turned the impression into a great one-man show, You're Welcome America.

Gary Oldman as Churchill one the phone with FDR in The Darkest Hour
Gary Oldman as Churchill one the phone with FDR in The Darkest Hour

David Strathairn As Franklin D. Roosevelt In The Darkest Hour

You know you're smashing a role when audiences know who you are without ever seeing your character. Such is the case with David Strathairn as FDR in The Darkest Hour. Though he's only heard over the telephone in a conversation with Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), everyone knew who it was.

Nigel Hawthorne As Martin Van Buren In Amistad
Nigel Hawthorne As Martin Van Buren In Amistad

Nigel Hawthorne As Martin Van Buren In Amistad

Martin Van Buren is probably best known in pop culture for being the namesake of the “Van Buren Boys” in Seinfeld, but he has been played on the big screen before, most notably by Nigel Hawthorne in Amistad. It’s a tricky part to play, but the scene in which he goes toe-to-toe in an argument over slavery with John C. Calhoun (Arliss Howard) at dinner is such a great scene and gives audiences a real sense of who Van Buren was as president, indeed what being president was like in those early years of the country.

Josh Brolin As George W. Bush - W.
Josh Brolin As George W. Bush - W.

Josh Brolin As George W. Bush - W.

Oliver Stone has three movies on his resume with a president’s name (or part of a name) in the title, the last being W. from 2008, starring Josh Brolin as George W. Bush. The movie is far from perfect, but Brolin does a great job as “Dubya” and completely disappears into the role.

Woody Harrelson As Lyndon Johnson In LBJ
Woody Harrelson As Lyndon Johnson In LBJ

Woody Harrelson As Lyndon Johnson In LBJ

Lyndon Johnson was a complicated man, and in LBJ Woody Harrelson nails all sides of him. Lustful for power, mean, and crass, but also compassionate for his constituents. It's a performance that is over-the-top, yet somehow realistic, much like the president himself.

Jared Harris As Ulysses S. Grant In Lincoln
Jared Harris As Ulysses S. Grant In Lincoln

Jared Harris As Ulysses S. Grant In Lincoln

Ulysses S. Grant is generally regarded by historians as a better general than a president, so it makes sense that the best portrayal of the 18th President of the United States would be of him as a general during the Civil War. Jared Harris’ performance as Grant in Lincoln isn’t a huge role, but in a film filled with great actors, Harris is right there at the top in his brooding, contemplative depiction of the general of the Union Army.

David Morse As George Washington In John Adams
David Morse As George Washington In John Adams

David Morse As George Washington In John Adams

The nation’s first president, George Washington, must be a pretty intimidating role to play. It’s hard to know what he sounded like, for example, or what his accent was. Still, David Morse nails the essence of both the historical and the mythical natures of Washington. He even looks just like him. It’s a fantastic performance.

Dan Aykroyd on SNL
Dan Aykroyd on SNL

Dan Aykroyd As Jimmy Carter On Saturday Night Live

For much of the prime years for the original cast of Not-Ready-Prime-Players on SNL in the late ‘70s, Jimmy Carter was president. Dan Aykroyd took up the task of playing the reserved, humble Carter and he did it well. Maybe the most famous sketch is of Carter taking calls from the public, only to get one from a man in need of a lot of help and telling him to play some Allman Brothers.

James Cromwell As George H. W. Bush in W.
James Cromwell As George H. W. Bush in W.

James Cromwell As George H. W. Bush in W.

Of all everyone on this list, James Cromwell may be the best casting of all when he played George H.W. Bush in W. Cromwell has the physically of the 41st president, and the gravitas to play the role. While not an exact analog of Bush’s look, it is perfect casting and acting, as you know immediately who is playing, before he even speaks.

Bill Murray As Franklin D. Roosevelt In Hyde Park On The Hudson
Bill Murray As Franklin D. Roosevelt In Hyde Park On The Hudson

Bill Murray As Franklin D. Roosevelt In Hyde Park On The Hudson

Hyde Park On The Hudson is not the strongest movie on this list, but Bill Murray is still very good as Franklin D. Roosevelt. Murray often doesn’t get enough credit for his dramatic roles, given how legendary he is as a comedian, but he should get more. Here, he plays the role subtly, with only a hint of FDR’s famous mid-Atlantic accent, and that’s a smart choice. It would be easy to see Murray as a cartoonish version of the president, but you don’t, and it makes for a powerful portrayal.