Film Portrayals of US President: New Typecasting Required

Wayne Madsen — Strategic Review August 19, 2018

De Niro rails against Trump at a recent awards ceremony.

De Niro rails against Trump at a recent awards ceremony.

Hollywood’s traditionally relied on seasoned serious actors to play past US presidents. However, this custom has been upended with the advent of Donald Trump as America’s chief executive. When it comes to casting actors to play Trump, Hollywood screenplay writers and directors might be forced to look at performers from comedy, particularly those whose routines are centered around the offensive insult.

Had Trump appeared earlier on the scene as president, the late comedians Don Rickles, Jack E. Leonard, or Sam Kinison would have been perfect candidates to play Trump. Today, there are a few insult comics who could fit the bill. They include Andrew Dice Clay, Seth MacFarlane, and – if a computer-generated version of Trump could be adapted for the big screen – Robert Smigel, who provides the voice for the sock puppet, “Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.”

Trump poses an exasperating casting dilemma for film and television screenwriters. In the past, for example, playing the role of Abraham Lincoln became the iconic serious role for any actor playing past presidents. More actors have taken on the role of Lincoln than any other US president. Lincoln’s role in ending slavery in the United States, his solemn reading of the Gettysburg Address, and his agonizing over the Civil War required an actor who could be sincere but, at the same time, given Lincoln’s Kentucky and Illinois roots, folksy. And Hollywood was able to fit the bill, with Henry Fonda playing a young Lincoln in the 1939 film, “Young Mr Lincoln,” which was directed by the legendary John Ford. The Canadian-American actor, Raymond Massey — whose stage-trained voice as a Shakespearean actor was perfect for any presidential performance — played Lincoln twice. Massey starred as Lincoln the 1940 film, “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” and in the 1962 epic, also directed by Ford, “How the West Was Won.” Massey also took on the role of Lincoln in television’s “American Heritage” series.

Massey, a conservative who supported Republican Barry Goldwater’s presidential run in 1964, would have been aghast at the Republican Party under the Canada-hating Trump. It is an overlooked footnote of history that Massey’s brother, Vincent Massey, was the first Canadian-born Governor-General of Canada.

Playing American presidents also ran in Massey’s family. His cousin, Walter Massey, played William Howard Taft in the 2005 bio-pic about golf champion Francis Ouimet, titled, “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

Raymond Massey considered it a great honor to play Mr Lincoln. Answering a question posed by an “American Heritage” interviewer about his repeated roles as Lincoln, Massey replied, “I will continue to portray Mr Lincoln even though the audience be but 10 people. Identification with the part is an accolade. It’s like being given a title. I am happy and proud the public has accepted me as this man of the ages.”

alex Baldwin plays Trump

Alec Baldwin as Trump. Click to enlarge

Apart from Alec Baldwin, who plays Trump in comedy skits on “Saturday Night Live,” it would be difficult, at best, to find any highly-rated actor who would want to be typecast as Trump in a serious role.

Massey set the standard for portrayals of Lincoln until 2012, when Daniel Day-Lewis took on the role, to critical acclaim, in the Steven Spielberg-produced and directed film, “Lincoln.” Trump has altered the image of past presidents to the degree that it would have been inconceivable for actors like Fonda and Massey, as well others who played Lincoln on the big and small screens, including Walter Huston, Hans Conried, Jason Robards, Sam Waterston, and John Carradine, to have realistically portrayed the current 45th president.

The role of George Washington also went to serious actors from film and television. Trailblazing the path was silent film star Francis X. Bushman, who played Washington in the 1927 movie, “The Flag.” Richard Basehart played Washington in 1975’s “Valley Forge,” as did Barry Bostwick in “George Washington” and Peter Graves in “The Rebels,” both television miniseries. Hal Holbrook, who is famous for playing Mark Twain, appeared in “George Washington” as John Adams and as Lincoln in television’s “Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln.” Iconic fatherly figure actor Lorne Greene appeared as Washington in the 1970 television movie, “Swing Out, Sweet Land.” Several descriptions have been written about Trump, but “fatherly figure” is, most definitely, not among them.

Because the American presidency has been treated as a revered office, one that should not be occupied by scoundrels – although some have served in the office prior to Trump – serious presidential roles have been reserved for serious actors. Such was the case with Burgess Meredith as James Madison in the 1946 movie “Magnificent Doll” and Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams in the award-winning “Amistad” and Nixon in the 1995 eponymous film. Lionel Barrymore starred as Andrew Jackson in 1952’s “Lone Star,” a role that was also taken on in 1942 by Brian Donlevy in “The Remarkable Andrew” and Charlton Heston in 1963’s “The President’s Lady” and 1958’s “The Buccaneer.” Sam Neill was Thomas Jefferson in the 2000 television offering, “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal.”

His role as World War II naval officer John F. Kennedy in 1963’s “PT-109” propelled actor Cliff Robertson into stardom. Actors Bryan Cranston and Woody Harrelson delivered memorable performances as Lyndon B. Johnson in 2016’s “All the Way” and 2017’s “LBJ,” respectively. Rip Torn’s performance as Nixon in 1979’s small screen miniseries, “Blind Ambition,” and Alan Rickman’s role as Ronald Reagan and Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower in 2013’s “The Butler” are also highly-acclaimed. “Backstairs at the White House,” a 1997 multiple Emmy Award-winning television miniseries, featured memorable performances by Victor Buono as William Howard Taft, Robert Vaughn as Woodrow Wilson, George Kennedy as Warren G. Harding, Ed Flanders as Calvin Coolidge, Harry Morgan as Harry S Truman, and Andrew Duggan as Eisenhower.

Other actors of fame who played actual presidents include Van Heflin as Andrew Johnson in 1942’s “Tennessee Johnson” and Walter Matthau, also as Johnson, in television’s 1965 “Profiles in Courage;” Harry Morgan as Ulysses S. Grant in “How the West Was Won;” Brian Keith as William McKinley in 1997’s television movie, “The Rough Riders;” Harry Dean Stanton as Warren G. Harding in “The Curse of the Hope Diamond;” and Ralph Bellamy as Franklin D. Roosevelt in one of the greatest presidential portrayal films of all-time, “Sunrise at Campobello.” Bellamy would return as FDR in the 1983 television miniseries, “The Winds of War.” Bellamy would shine as Hollywood’s most-memorable FDR until Bill Murray played the 32nd president in 2012’s “Hyde Park on Hudson.”

In addition to Harry Morgan’s television performance, President Truman was played by some of Hollywood’s best role actors, including Robert Vaughn in 1974’s “The Man from Independence,” James Whitmore in 1975’s “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” Ed Flanders in 1977’s “MacArthur,” and Gary Sinise in 1995’s “Truman.”

Sinise, a noted Republican, refused to vote for or endorse Trump in 2016. Although Sinise has taken on other controversial roles, including playing Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace in a 1997 television bio-pic titled, “George Wallace,” his personal dislike for Trump would be problematic in his agreeing to mount such a performance. The same could be said for dozens of other top-shelf actors.

There is one actor, however, who has already been typecast as a heavy and a tough in films, who would probably relish playing Trump in a movie. He is Jon Voight, who, at a pre-inaugural event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on January 19, 2017, said of Trump, “Abraham Lincoln is smiling knowing America will be saved by an honest and good man who will work for the all the people, no matter their creed or color.” With the ability to say something that Trump might say, with a perfectly straight face, Voight would be a shoo-in for the role of Trump.

One actress, who has been touted to play Melania Trump in a future movie, has shown no inclination toward agreeing to such a role. The actress in question is Angelina Jolie, Voight’s formerly estranged daughter. Commenting on Jolie on CNN, Trump once said, “In terms of beauty, she’s not a great beauty.”

Actors have traditionally valued the roles of playing American presidents on the big and small screens. Much of this is owed to the prestige of the American presidency. When one thinks of Raymond Massey, Lincoln immediately comes to mind. The same holds true for Ralph Bellamy as FDR and Cliff Robertson as JFK. Few successful actors want to ever be associated with Donald Trump. That is how much Trump has lowered the esteem historically and traditionally granted by Hollywood to the presidency of the United States.


Washington insider with many contacts within the capitol's Beltway, the US Intelligence community and beyond