28 actors who played the president of the United States, and how they compare to the real thing | DailyExchange
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28 actors who played the president of the United States, and how they compare to the real thing



Summary List Placement

The best movies and TV shows about presidents often aim to find the more side of them. It also helps if the actors look the part.

In honor of President Joe Biden’s inauguration Wednesday, Insider put together a list of actors who played former presidents and compared how similar they looked to the leaders. We didn’t include fictional presidents — apologies to the corny bloviator in “Independence Day” and the sexual predator in “Love Actually” — and chose to exclude any parodies. So while “Saturday Night Live” has some excellent impressions, they’re not on this list.

Here are 28 actors who played the president of the United States and how they compared to the real thing.

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The fullest adaptation of George Washington’s life is the 1984 CBS miniseries “George Washington.” The role was played by Barry Bostwick.

The series covered his life from age 11 to 51, just before he began his presidency, and is based on James Thomas Flexner’s mammoth biography.

He’s a bit more rosy-cheeked, with rounder , in Gilbert Stuart’s famous 1796 portrait.

The best image we have of Washington was painted in 1796, where Washington looks pretty different from Bostwick.

For our second president, John Adams, we have Paul Giamatti’s portrayal.

He played the American politician in the 2008 HBO miniseries “John Adams.”

Portraits of the real-life Adams had an intensity that Giamatti’s performance shares.

The facial features don’t all match up, but Giamatti channels Adams’ demeanor.

Anthony Hopkins played John Quincy Adams, John Adams’ son and America’s sixth president, in Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad.”

The 1997 movie takes place during Martin van Buren’s presidency rather than Adams’, though.

The movie nails the facial hair.

In his later years, Adams basically had sideburns that went to his chin.

Charlton Heston played Andrew Jackson twice: In the 1953 biopic “The President’s Lady” and 1958 pirate movie “The Buccaneer.”

Kris Kristofferson is also known for playing the seventh president in the 2015 History Channel series “Texas Rising.”

The facial features and hair are pretty close.

Heston’s version of the president captures his long face, swept-back hair, and intensity.

Martin Van Buren was also in “Amistad,” played by Nigel Hawthorne.

He oversees the political implications of a slave ship that arrived on American shores.

Once again, the Spielberg movie knows what it’s doing when it comes to sideburns.

Martin van Buren’s facial hair was even a little more wily in real life.

Abraham Lincoln has been depicted onscreen more than any other president, most famously by Daniel Day-Lewis.

For Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie “Lincoln,” Day-Lewis was praised for his fidelity to the role, adopting the real-life president’s thin, reedy voice.

The real-life Lincoln had strikingly similar facial features.

This photo, taken in 1863, was taken around the same time the movie takes place.

Henry Fonda also portrayed the 16th president in “Young Mr. Lincoln.”

Before Day-Lewis’ portrayal, the 1939 fictionalized movie about Lincoln’s early life by John Ford was considered the gold standard.

In earlier photos, it’s true he didn’t have his famous beard.

Lincoln had a more clean-shaven look earlier in his career, so the Ford depiction got that right.

Van Heflin played Lincoln’s vice president, Andrew Johnson, who took on the presidency when his predecessor was assassinated, in 1942’s “Tennessee Johnson.”

The movie was accused of whitewashing Johnson’s racism, but Helfin’s career was fine. The same year, he won a supporting actor Oscar for “Johnny Eager.”

It’s pretty close. The real-life Johnson had similarly deep-set eyes.

Fun fact: Johnson was the first US president to be impeached.

Joseph Crehan played Ulysses S. Grant nine times. Here he is in 1939’s “Union Pacific.”

He also played Grant in “Geronimo” (1939), “Colorado” (1940), “The Adventures of Mark Twain” (1944), “Silver River” (1948), “Red Desert” (1949), “San Antone” (1953), and an episode of “Jane Wyman Presents” (1958).

The real-life Grant had a very similar beard.

From Union General to US president, Grant kept his famous beard throughout his career.

The little-known actor Roy Gordon played Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president, in “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

The 1952 movie was a biopic of John Philip Sousa, the composer of the titular military march.

He’s a dead ringer for the president.

The actor has the same face shape and groomed facial hair as the former president.

William McKinley, played by Frank Conroy, tries to stop some bank robbers in the 1937 movie “This Is My Affair.”

It’s a fictionalized role in which the 25th president is involved in fighting bank robbers for some reason.

It’s a pretty good depiction. The real McKinley also had a serious, buttoned-up look.

Come to think of it, he kind of looks like a chief who’d clamp down on robberies.

Robin Williams played a statue of Theodore Roosevelt come to life in the “Night at the Museum” movies.

In addition to the first, 2006 movie, he also played the role in the sequels “Battle of the Smithsonian” and “Secret of the Tomb.” Williams also played President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 2013 movie “The Butler.”

The movies got the real-life Rough Rider’s moustache just right.

The 26th president is a towering figure in American history, and Williams did a great job at capturing his larger-than-life persona.

Alexander Knox played Woodrow Wilson in 1944’s “Wilson,” one of the first Oscar-baiting presidential biopics.

The movie won five out of 10 Oscar nominations, but missed out on a best actor win for Knox.

There are some similarities, although Wilson looks older and has a narrower face in this photo.

The movie captures Wilson’s professorial air, and gets details like his glasses and hair right.

Malachy Cleary played the 29th president, Warren G. Harding, in an episode of “Boardwalk Empire.”

He was in “Hold Me in Paradise,” in the show’s first season, which took place during the 1920 Republican National Convention.

The real Harding had sharper features.

While “Boardwalk Empire” gets points for period costumes and set design, Cleary doesn’t precisely capture the corruption-plagued president.

Bill Murray played Franklin Delano Roosevelt in “Hyde Park on Hudson” in 2012.

Along with Lincoln and his distant cousin, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR is one of the most-portrayed presidents.

While the movie got anemic reviews, Bill Murray’s portrayal is spot-on.

FDR did love putting around his Hyde Park estate in his car.

Gary Sinise wore a prosthetic nose to play Harry S. Truman in the 1995 HBO film “Truman.”

The movie was based on on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the 33rd president.

It’s pretty accurate.

Sinise was cast perfectly and won a Golden Globe for the role.

Bruce Greenwood played President John F. Kennedy in “Thirteen Days,” which dramatized the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The movie received positive reviews from critics, but not so much from historians.

Greenwood is a great actor, but he doesn’t quite have the same natural charisma as the real Kennedy.

Still, he portrayed Kennedy well as a political maneuverer.

William Devane also starred as JFK in the 1874 TV docudrama “The Missiles of October.”

The film chronicles the Cuban Missile Crisis and was inspired by Robert F. Kennedy’s  posthumously published 1969 book, “Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

It’s actually a pretty close representation.

Devane nailed the way JFK crinkled his forehead when he was listening. He even got JFK’s tortoiseshell frames right. 

Bryan Cranston took a turn at playing Lyndon Baines Johnson in the 2016 HBO biopic “All the Way.”

LBJ has been depicted in several movies in recent years. Liev Schreiber played him as an arch politician in 2013’s “The Butler,” Tom Wilkinson highlighted his racism in 2014’s “Selma,” John Caroll Lynch played him in 2016’s “Jackie,” and Woody Harrelson had a biopic of his own with 2017’s “LBJ.”

It’s a good match.

Cranston was nominated for numerous awards for the role. The biggest difference, physically, is that the real-life Johnson had slightly less hair and was more jowly than Cranston himself.

Frank Langella played the disgraced 37th president, Richard Nixon, in “Frost/Nixon.”

The 2008 movie dramatizes Nixon’s post- interviews with journalist David Frost.

The real-life Nixon had a broader head, a pudgier nose, and famously droopy jowls.

Langella got an Oscar nomination for his performance.

“The Butler” had a parade of actors playing presidents, and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan was the highlight.

It was a brief role, but Rickman’s unique voice and on-screen made him stand out from everyone else.

Rickman looks a little younger in the role, but it’s pretty close.

Rickman’s slightly more rosy-cheeked than the real Reagan. But for a British actor, he made it work.

James Cromwell played the elder President Bush in the Oliver Stone biopic “W.”

George H.W. Bush became the 41st president after the end of Reagan’s second term.

The two men do not look alike.

If you squint, the shapes of their mouths look kind of alike.

Dennis Quaid played President Bill Clinton in the HBO drama “The Special Relationship.”

The movie has nothing to do with Clinton’s extramarital affair: It’s about his relationship with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Quaid is also playing former president George W. Bush in FX’s upcoming show “Katrina: American Crime Story.”

Quaid may have the right hairline and face shape, but that’s where the similarities end.

He doesn’t otherwise resemble the 42nd president.

Also in “W.,” Josh Brolin played No. 43, George W. Bush.

Oliver Stone’s critical biopic, released during Bush’s presidency, cast Josh Brolin as a third choice after Harrison Ford and Christian Bale dropped the project.

There are similarities between the two men.

Josh Brolin nails Bush’s facial expressions and does well with the accent, but doesn’t quite have the same features.

Parker Sawyers played a young Barack Obama in “Southside With You.”

The 2016 movie is about the first date between Barack and Michelle Obama while the two worked at the same law firm in Chicago.

He shares a resemblance with the 44th president.

Sawyers captured his self-assuredness and charisma.

Devon Terrell played a young Obama in his junior year at Columbia University for the film “Barry.”

Netflix’s 2016 movie explores the social and cultural events that influenced a young Barack Obama during his time at Columbia University in the 1980s. 

Nailed it again.

Terrell got everything right from his hair and facial expressions to the president’s calculated speaking style.  

Brendan Gleeson played President in Showtime’s 2020 four-episode political drama “The Comey Rule.”

Bill Ray’s Showtime mini-series explores the relationship between former FBI director James Comey and President Trump in the early months of his presidency. It’s based on the book “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by former FBI director James Comey.” 

It’s pretty close.

Gleeson’s got Trump’s iconic head of hair and he mimics the president’s facial expressions well.


Greg Kinnear played then-Senator Joe Biden in the 2016 HBO film “Confirmation.”

The film follows the Senate hearings in 1991 corresponding with Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court. The film features Kinnear prominently as then-Senator Biden questioning Anita Hill about allegations that Thomas sexually harassed her. 

There are some similarities, but Biden looks older in this picture.

Kinnear without a doubt nailed the intensity with which Biden questioned Hill. But the real Biden’s face looks fuller and his hair is thinning more than his on-screen adaptation. 

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