Once upon a time, the third Monday in February was designated as a day to celebrate George Washington’s birthday. These days, however, although it varies from state to state, it tends to be known less specifically as Presidents Day, which means that we can ostensibly celebrate everyone who’s ever been the President of the United States. Here at Premium Hollywood, we’d also like to extend that to those who’ve served as our nation’s commander-in-chief on television and the silver screen.
Now, granted, that’s a lot of people…more, in fact, than we could possibly give shout-outs to in a single piece. As such, we decided to pare it down to the same number of individuals as have held the highest office in our land since its inception. Forty-four folks is still nothing to sneeze at, but we’re betting that we’ll still end up having left out someone’s favorite son (or daughter). To paraphrase one of our real presidents, you can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. With that said, however, we still think we did a pretty solid job of picking the best candidates for the piece.
1. President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews), “Idiocracy”: Why are we leading off with President Camacho? Because, really, when you’ve got a fake President on your list who’s also a porn superstar and a five-time ultimate smackdown wrestling champion, why in God’s name would you wait any longer than necessary to trumpet his inclusion? Clearly, this man is the fake President to end all fake Presidents, and he’s #1 with a bullet. It’s all going to be downhill from here.
2. President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), “The American President”: President Shepherd is a widower who pursues a relationship with an attractive lobbyist — Sydney Ellen Wade, played by Annette Bening — while at the same time attempting to win passage of a crime control bill. Although the film was mostly ignored by the Oscars, it racked up several Golden Globe nominations and has since found its way into the #75 spot on the American Film Institute’s list of America’s Greatest Love Stories. Plus, its screenwriter managed to find a good use for the excess material that he didn’t have room to fit into the script…but we’ll get to that in our next entry.
3. President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), “The West Wing”: Yes, if you hadn’t figured it out already, “The American President” was written by Aaron Sorkin, which is why you may notice a resemblance between the mannerisms of Presidents Shepherd and Bartlet. Ironically, though, Sorkin had originally envisioned the series as revolving so much around the White House senior staff that viewers would rarely, if ever, see the president. Instead, what the nation got was an idealized leader, one who – in A Novel Approach to Politics, by Douglas A. Van Belle and Kenneth M. Mash – is referred to as the “most popular Democratic president in recent memory.” The book was written pre-Obama, mind you, but we’re pretty sure the title still stands.
4. President William Harrison Mitchell (Kevin Kline), “Dave”: Given the vaguely “The Prince and the Pauper”-esque premise of the film, which involes a guy who makes a few bucks on the side as a Presidential impersonator being asked to play the part for real when the actual President suffers an incapacitating stroke, there was every reason to believe that “Dave” would’ve been a trifle at best, but between Kline’s imminent likability and a fantastic supporting cast (Sigourney Weaver as the First Lady, Ben Kingsley as the Vice President, Frank Langella as Chief of Staff, and Charles Grodin as Dave’s accountant buddy, Murray), it often comes close to – even though it doesn’t quite reach – the heights of “The American President.”
5 – 8. President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman), “Independence Day” / President Blake (Perry King) and President Becker (Kenneth Welsh), “The Day After Tomorrow” / President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover), “2012”: As soon as you see the credit “directed by Roland Emmerich” on a disaster flick, you just know things are going to reach a point where the President of the United States is going to be brought into the discussion about whatever imminent danger may be about to thrust itself onto our planet.
There’s also a very good possibility that the ol’ rite of succession may come into play during the course of the film, such as it did in “The Day After Tomorrow,” when we lost President Blake after the blades of his helicopter froze. Say hello, President Becker! The same thing happened in “2012,” too, but we were so in awe of President Wilson’s selfless sacrifice – he stayed behind to help survivors in need, only to meet his death when the tidal wave struck the White House – that we’ve made an executive decision not to include Wilson’s successor, President Anheuser (Oliver Platt) in the list. Why? Because he’s a dick.
The definitive Emmerich-flick president, of course, is President Whitmore. During the course of “Independence Day,” he sees the White House blown up, loses his wife, fights off a psychic attack from an alien, and flies a goddamned jet fighter into battle to help save the day. Plus, he gives the most stirring speech this side of “Patton.” Hell, I’d vote for him.
9. President Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman), “Deep Impact”: Not a lot of guys have the charisma and fortitude to play both God and the President. This wasn’t the first time an African-American had been portrayed as a U.S. President, but I think it was probably the first time a lot of people found themselves wondering, “Has anyone talked to Morgan Freeman about running for office?” Hell, I’d vote for him, too!
10. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), “Dr. Strangelove”: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” As one of the greatest political satires in motion picture history, there was never any way that we could create a list like this and not include President Muffley, an upstanding leader who refuses to go down in history as the greatest mass murderer since Adolf Hitler…because, y’know, it’s important to have standards. Muffley gets several imminently quotable lines during the course of the film, but for my mind, it doesn’t get much better than the conversation between him and Soviet Premier Dmitri Kissoff.
11 – 12. President Matt Douglas (James Garner) and President Russell P. Kramer (Jack Lemmon), “My Fellow Americans”: No, it’s not a great film, and the oft-sneered tagline of “Grumpy Old Presidents” is perfectly apt, but both Garner and Lemmon are such likable, genial actors that it still manages to go down smoothly, particularly as they spar over their respective positions in history. On the whole, though, I prefer the moments when they’re bonding over their shared experiences in the Oval Office, like this one:
Kramer: When you were in the White House, who was the person you were most excited to meet?
Douglas: Nelson Mandela.
Kramer: I’m not a reporter.
Douglas: Ella Fitzgerald.
Douglas: Mandela was a great man, but he couldn’t sing worth a shit.
(It’s also worth noting that, during the course of events, we see both Dan Aykroyd and John Heard playing presidents, with the latter doing a thinly-veiled take on Dan Quayle, but as they’re not the thrust of the film, they don’t warrant their own placements on the list.)
13. President James Dale (Jack Nicholson), “Mars Attacks!”: “I want the people to know that they still have 2 out of 3 branches of the government working for them, and that ain’t bad.” Given that director Tim Burton had let Nicholson got hog wild when he played the Joker in “Batman,” it’s none too surprising that he let him do the same thing in this film, but of the two characters Nicholson plays here, his work as President Dale is comparatively tame. Fair enough: it’s Rod Steiger’s job to go apeshit in most of those scenes, anyway.
14. President Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter), “Americathon”: Frankly, I’m shocked that this film didn’t manage to score a re-release in 1998, since that’s the year in which it’s set. Maybe it’s because its premise would’ve hit too close to home.
In the film, the USA has run out of oil, many Americans are literally living in their cars, the federal government is near national bankruptcy, and it’s decided that the only way enough money can be raised to save America is to run a telethon. John Ritter’s character, President Roosevelt, was only elected into office because the TV-viewing voters of America recognized his family name…not that that’s ever happened in America.
I can’t really offer a whole lot more about “Americathon,” having never actually seen it myself, but I do know that, in addition to appearances from Elvis Costello and Meat Loaf, it also features several scenes that accurately predict how ridiculous reality TV would eventually become, including one which finds a very young Jay Leno in a boxing match with his mother. Man, that guy is always causing trouble…
15. President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges), “The Contender”: Given all the Jeff Bridges love that’s been going on within the industry lately, thanks to his work in “Crazy Heart,” we always knew this performance would make the cut, but as it happens, Bridges wasn’t even Lurie’s initial pick for the role. “My first choice for that film was Paul Newman, but he didn’t even read the screenplay,” admitted Lurie, when I dropped him a line about this piece. “After him, I asked myself who was a younger Newman and went for Jeff.” When Lurie first visited with Bridges, he said the actor laughed at the notion of “The Dude” as President, but he warmed to the idea with ease. “I loved it when he asked me permission to base Jackson on his dad, (Lloyd),” said Lurie. “I was very touched by it.” FYI, Lloyd Bridges played the President once as well…in “Hot Shots! Part Deux.” (Surely you remember President Thomas “Tug” Benson.)
16. President Judson C. “Judd” Hammond (Walter Huston), “Gabriel Over the White House”: Best remembered by film historians for the fact that it was produced by William Randolph Hearst, who pointedly steered the film in the direction that he hoped FDR’s presidency would lean, “Gabriel Over the White House” is the tale of a real jackass of a president (he’s supposedly an amalgam of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover) who, after an automobile accident, has a religious experience and, as a result, soon attempts to solve the country’s problems through authoritarian means.
Political aficionados can and do talk for hours about this flick, how one should interpret it, and how it can be related to current events, but don’t worry: if just watch it as a movie, it’s still pretty good, too.
17. President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March), “Seven Days in May”: When the director of “The Manchurian Candidate” helms a film with a screenplay written by the man behind “The Twilight Zone,” you know you’re going to be in for something great, and the John Frankenheimer / Rod Serling collaboration easily lived up to the reputations of both gentlemen.
The film’s premise was controversial at the time, first by positing a future – 1969 – where the president is considering signing a treaty with the Soviet Union which would ostensibly result in both nations simultaneously destroying all of their nuclear weapons, then by suggesting a conspiracy wherein members of the military would stage a coup d’etat and remove the president and his cabinet from office. Great stuff, with March pulling in a Golden Globe nomination for his performance.
18. President Johnny Cyclops (Barry Morse), “Whoops Apocalypse”: The Brits have never had a problem poking fun at their brethren across the pond, but they really enjoying sticking it to Ronald Reagan. Sometimes they did it outright, but with the six-episode series entitled “Whoops Apocalypse,” they were a bit more subtle, creating a naive American president named Johnny Cyclops to mock. Having some fun at the expense of religious right while they were at it, President Cyclops is advised by an insane right-wing fundamentalist security advisor, called The Deacon, who claims to have a direct hotline to God. They also bring in the Soviets, the Iranians, and, yes, the Brits themselves play a part as well. Mostly, though, it’s President Cyclops who gets the worst of it, reaching a point during the course of the story where his popularity is indicated to be just below that of Charles Manson, later plummeting to beneath that of the Boston Strangler. And, yes, in the end, there really is an apocalypse, but that’s not much of a spoiler. After all, they show it
19. President Caroline Reynolds (Patricia Wettig), “Prison Break”: Several semi-unscrupulous individuals have risen to the highest position in the U.S. government – not that we’re naming names – but we’d be willing to bet that few of them can live up to the nastiness of President Reynolds.
Here’s a woman who decided that she would become the Commander in Chief by any means necessary and made good on that declaration in several really awful ways, but the most notable came about when, while serving as Vice President, she poisoned the sitting president. Hello, rite of succession! When it’s later revealed that Reynolds is suffering from cancer, it’s a rare occasion where viewers found themselves rooting for the disease.
20. President Samuel A. Tresch (George C. Scott), “Mr. President”: This wasn’t the first sitcom revolving around the President of the United States, but ABC’s “Hail to the Chief” – which placed Patty Duke in the Oval Office – lasted for all of seven episodes. Despite its failure, folks still saw the comedic potential in a premise of a sitcom about the commander-in-chief, which is presumably why the idea was resurrected only two years later. Given that POTUS was played by George C. Scott, it’s no wonder that this take on the concept was a decidedly less slapstick affair. Though not a rousing success, it did manage to last for two seasons and 24 episodes, holding a footnote in TV history as part of Fox’s freshman class of comedies, along with “Duet,” “Married with Children,” and “The Tracey Ullman Show.”
21 – 26. Presidents Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), Keeler (Geoff Pierson), Logan (Charles Itzen), Palmer (D.B. Woodside), Daniels (Powers Boothe), and Taylor (Cherry Jones), “24”: When I mentioned to one of the other Bullz-Eye writers that there had been six presidents over the course of the run of “24,” he was absolutely incredulous. Given that I don’t really watch the show, I was a little surprised, too, but given all the terrorist activities that seem to happen on that series, I guess I shouldn’t have been.
Let me see if I’ve got this straight: presidential candidate David Palmer survived Season 1 to get elected, then stayed in office through the end of Season 3. In Season 4, we get President Keeler, but when Air Force One is shot down, Keeler ends up in a coma, which puts Vice President Logan in command. Logan is still in command when Season 5 rolls around, but…well, let’s just say some serious shit goes down with Logan in Season 5.
By Season 6, we’ve got a new President Palmer…Wayne Palmer, David’s brother. After an assassination plot against him, however, his VP, Noah Daniels, ascends to the presidency. Finally, when Daniels is up for re-election, he loses to Allison Taylor, who – at least as of this writing – currently remains the President of the United States. But for how long? For how long…?!?
27. President Douglass Dilman (James Earl Jones), “The Man”: Here’s the second appearance of Rod Serling in our list, who wrote the screenplay for this film – originally intended only as a TV movie, according to Jones – about Douglass Dilman, the President pro tempore of the United States Senate, who succeeds to the presidency after the President and the Speaker of the House are killed in a building collapse in West Germany.
The Vice President, who is both elderly and in ill health, refuses to accept the position, so it falls to Dilman. This doesn’t sit well with the Secretary of State, who quickly attempts to set himself up as the man behind the curtain in the administration. Trouble ensues, and it should surprise no one that the troubles of apartheid in South Africa are quickly made part of the plot developments.
Phil Nugent wrote on Nerve.com that “‘The Man’ remains rooted firmly in the concept that a black man could become president only through a surreal set of circimstances and that much, if not most of the country, would balk at regarding his presidency as legitimate.” In 1972, the idea was at best considered far-fetched and at worst a joke…but who’s laughing now?
28. President Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams), “Man of the Year”: In a potentially-ripped-from-the-headlines premise, Tom Dobbs is a comedian and the host of a satirical talk show (think “The Daily Show,” especially since it’s clear that that’s what writer / director Barry Levinson did) who follows the suggestion of a member of his audience and decides to run for president…and, to his surprise, wins. Great concept, poor execution, but given that Al Franken has since managed to get elected to the U.S. Senate, it’s clear that such a thing could well happen one of these days. But will it be President Stewart or President Colbert?
29. President Roberts (Jack Warden), “Being There”: This film tells the tale of a gardener named Chance who is such a blank slate of an individual that the people he encounters tend to perceive the things he says as what they want to hear rather than what they really mean. If that doesn’t make sense, then you probably need to see the film again, but suffice it to say that among those whom he encounters during the course of travel is no less than the President of the United States. Chance makes a comment about how the garden changes with the seasons, and the president, believing that his new friend is speaking in metaphor, takes this as political advice about his current popularity ratings. It isn’t.
30. The President (Billy Bob Thornton), “Love Actually”: Although he doesn’t get developed well enough as a character to even warrant a proper name, the President in “Love Actually” nonetheless manages to try and put the moves on Natalie, a junior member of the household staff at 10 Dowling Street.
It’s these actions which result in Britain’s Prime Minister – played by Hugh Grant – finally standing up for his country and basically calling the U.S. a big bully. Yes, that’s right: this is a case of the president existing solely as a plot device.
31. President Mays Gilliam (Chris Rock), “Head of State”: 31 years after James Earl Jones took to the Oval Office in “The Man,” we were given this film, which featured posters trumpeting, “The only thing white is the house!” This might’ve been funnier if, a mere half-decade earlier, we hadn’t readily accepted the idea of Morgan Freeman leading the country. On the up side, though, if there’s anyone who could make the concept funny and still get in some legitimately stinging political barbs, it’s Chris Rock.
32. President Max Frost (Christopher Jones), “Wild in the Streets”: Some films are products of their era which are applauded in the time but seem laughable when viewed only a few years later. This is absolutely one of those films. Max Frost is an aspiring singer and occasional revolutionary who appears at a political rally aimed at changing the voting age from 21 to 18, only to call for it to be dropped to a mere 14. He eventually ups his requested age to 15, and when the change ends up being made, it leads to a chain of events which starts with lowering the age requirements for political office to 14 and ultimately leads to him being elected as President of the United States. Once there, 30 becomes a mandatory retirement age, and those over 35 are rounded up, sent to reeducation camps, and permanently dosed on LSD. From there, Max withdraws the military from around the world, puts computers and prodigies in charge of the Gross National Product, ships surplus grain for free to third world nations, disbands the FBI and Secret Service, and…well, basically, it’s hedonism-a-go-go. I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today…
33. President Jack Stanton (John Travolta), “Primary Colors”: If there was anyone who didn’t comprehend that this book was a thinly-veiled look into the life of President Clinton on the campaign trail prior to ascending to the White House, then Travolta’s attempt at an Arkansas drawl surely underlined the point for them.
34. President Harris (Leslie Nielsen), “Scary Movie 3” and “Scary Movie 4”: You’d like to think that we’ve never had a president quite as incompetent as this one, but…well, I think I’ll just end that sentence right there. As for the seemingly never-ending old man nudity, sure, it’s rough going, but at least the whole sequence ends with a fart joke. There goes that duck again…
35. The President (E.G. Marshall), “Superman II”: As anyone who’s seen this classic flick knows, there are really only two moments where the president plays a part. The first is the classic Oval Office scene where he tries and fails to fake out General Zod by sending in one of his cronies to pretend that he’s the president. Sorry, I couldn’t embed it, so you’ll just have to click here). The other – which is also unembeddable, so click here for that one – is when he interrupts his surrender to General Zod to cry, “Superman, can you hear me? Superman?!?” He can hear him, of course…but you can damned well bet that he doesn’t kneel before Zod.
36. The President (Henry Fonda), “Fail Safe”: It was a toss-up when trying to decide which of Henry Fonda’s presidential portrayals would be included in this list, and although “Meteor” stayed in serious contention ’til the last second, we finally decided that we’d probably get our asses handed to us if we didn’t go with the more socially acceptable choice of “Fail Safe.” The film offers a simple but scary premise: due to an electrical malfunction, American planes are sent to deliver a nuclear attack on Moscow. Will they realize that it’s a mistake in time? If they don’t, will the President be able to convince the Soviet premier that it was an error and shouldn’t be met with retaliation? It’s a gripping film, with an ending that’ll leave you breathless. “Fail Safe” was later remade as a live television event directed by Stephen Frears, with Richard Dreyfuss playing the President, but he’s got nothing on Fonda.
37. The President (Stanley Anderson), “Armageddon”: Some people consider this to be the definitive giant-asteroid movie, but while I respect the slam-bang popcorn-movie style of Michael Bay, I’m a “Deep Impact” guy through and through. Still, you can’t say this isn’t a moving speech. By the way, Stanley Anderson first served as our commander-in-chief in “The Rock,” but while his appearance in that film was so small as to not even warrant a screen credit for his trouble, he apparently still impressed Bay enough in the position to stay in office.
38. President Arnold Schwarzenegger (Harry Shearer), “The Simpsons Movie”: Of course we know that it’s impossible for Schwarzenegger to ever be President: he was born in Austria, and it says right in the U.S. Constitution that “no person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President.” Haven’t you heard of suspension of disbelief? Besides, like that’s the least plausible thing in the film? Gimme a break…
39. President Staton (Dennis Quaid), “American Dreamz”: Take the George W. Bush administration and blend it with “American Idol,” and you’ve got this flick. Things kick off with President Stanton making the mistake of reading the newspaper for the first time in four years and seeing the world without having it filtered through his cabinet members first. Is it any wonder that the man comes within a hairsbreadth of having a nervous breakdown as a result? In an attempt to mellow him out a bit, Staton’s chief of staff gets the president a gig as a judge on his favorite show, the national talent search known as “American Dreamz.” Cue Hugh Grant, who plays a Simon Cowell equivalent named Martin Tweed. It’s always struck me as surprising that the film didn’t do better, given how much viewers love “American Idol.” Maybe they take it so seriously that the idea of seeing it mocked just pissed them off…?
40. President White (Donald Pleasance), “Escape from New York”: When I put out a request to the other writers for suggestions for this list, Ross Ruediger immediately wrote back with one name, along with the words, “You’re the Duke! A-Number-One!” This John Carpenter then-futuristic classic – it takes place in 1997 – couldn’t even have existed without President White, revolving as it does around Air Force One being hijacked by members of the Popular Front For the Liberation of America and crashing on Manhattan Island, which has been converted into a maximum security prison. Enter the infamous Snake Plissken, who’s offered a deal: if he rescues the President within 24 hours and retrieves a cassette tape that contains important information on nuclear fusion, he’ll get a full pardon. If you’ve never seen the film, I hate to spoil it for you, so I won’t tell you whether Plissken succeeds or not, but I will offer this clip, which shows that, at the very least, the President doesn’t exactly have it easy while he’s waiting on Snake. (You’re welcome, Ross.)
41. President James Norcross (Paul Frees), “Super President”: Long before you ever click “play,” the fact that this clip comes to us courtesy of a site called WorstCartoonsEver.com speaks volumes about what you can expect, but, seriously, this is ridiculous. The premise: President James Norcross is given superpowers as the result of a cosmic storm and now has increased strength and can change his molecular composition at will to any form required. No word on whether it was a direct inspiration for Robert Smigel’s “The X-Presidents” feature on “TV Funhouse,” but while it’s almost as ridiculous, it wasn’t intended to be funny. (One can imagine plenty of tasteless Republicans watching the cartoon and chuckling to themselves, “Guess JFK wasn’t a Super President, huh?”)
42. President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis), “Commander in Chief”: Whenever I think of this show, I think of what its creator, Rod Lurie, said to me during an interview about his experiences on the series. “We were such a gigantic success and the number-one new show by a lot,” he said. “We were actually beating ‘House’ in the ratings. Then on October 6, my agent called to tell me that I was going to be fired. Early the next morning, I met with Mark Pedowitz, who was running Touchstone, and the first thing I said to him was, ‘So what do you do to the guy who gives you the number two new show? Does he have to get shot?’”
If you go back and look at the series, you can pretty easily detect the point where Lurie left, but he left a part of him behind in the title character. “Mackenzie Allen was based in demeanor on Susan Lyne at ABC and in her wisdom on my mother Tamar,” Lurie informed me, when I dropped him a line about this piece. Oh, and despite his interest in female presidents, he wasn’t part of Team Hillary. “Many people thought I was trying to make headway for Clinton,” he said. “But I became one of Obama’s top supporters!”
43. President Mike Brady (Gary Cole), “The Brady Bunch in the White House”: Don’t waste your time trying to work out how in the hell the rite of succession would ever result in an architect who isn’t even a politician finding his way into a spot in the Oval Office, and definitely don’t waste your time trying to find a copy of this movie. Just know that, although it isn’t very funny, Gary Cole’s channeling of the late Robert Reed remains spot-on…and if you really need a “Brady Bunch” movie fix, go watch the first one again instead.
44. President James Marshall (Harrison Ford), “Air Force One”: In that this was one of the most obvious inclusions, we figured we’d save it for last. No, it’s not a great movie, but when it comes to ass-kicking commanders in chief, no one can touch Harrison Ford. All together now: “Get off my plane!”