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

29 actors who played the president of the United States, and how they compare to the real thing
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·13 min read
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Clive Owen (right) plays President Bill Clinton (left).
Clive Owen (right) plays President Bill Clinton (left) in the FX series "Impeachment: American Crime Story." Alyssa Pointer-Pool/Getty Images, FX

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

barry bostwick as george washington
Barry Bostwick as George Washington. CBS

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 features, in Gilbert Stuart's famous 1796 portrait.

george washington portrait
The Lansdowne Portrait of Washington hanging in the US National Portrait Gallery. US National Portrait Gallery

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.

paul giamatti as john adams in the hbo miniseries
Paul Giamatti in "John Adams." HBO

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.

A portrait of John Adams
A portrait of President John Adams from circa 1790. Stock Montage/Getty Images

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."

Anthony Hopkins played president john quincy adams in "Amistad."
Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams in "Amistad." Dreamworks

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

The movie nails the facial hair.

john quincy adams
A copy of a daguerreotype taken of John Quincy Adams in around 1845. National Archives and Records Administration

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."

charleton heston as Andrew Jackson in a scene from "the buccaneer"
Charlton Heston as then-General Andrew Jackson in "The Buccaneer." Paramount Pictures

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.

andrew jackson
A portrait of Andrew Jackson. Stock Montage/Stock Montage/Getty Images

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.

martin van buren as portrayed in "amistad."
Nigel Hawthorne as Martin van Buren in "Amistad." Dreamworks

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
A print of Martin van Buren. Wikimedia Commons

However, Martin van Buren's facial hair was a little more untamed in real life.

Abraham Lincoln has been depicted onscreen more than any other president. The most famous portrayal was by Daniel Day-Lewis.

daniel day lewis as abraham lincoln
Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln." Disney

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.

Abraham Lincoln's portrait.
Abraham Lincoln. Mathew B. Brady:The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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."

Henry Fonda rides a horse while portraying Abraham Lincoln in "Young Mr. Lincoln."
Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln in "Young Mr. Lincoln." 20th Century Fox

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.

A portrait of a younger Abraham Lincoln, when he did not have a beard.
Abraham Lincoln. Historical/Getty Images

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."

Van Heflin in a scene from "Tennessee Johnson."
Van Helfin in "Tennessee Johnson." MGM

The movie was accused of whitewashing Johnson's racism, but Helfin's career didn't suffer — 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.

president andrew johnson
A photo of Andrew Johnson from before 1875. Library of Congress

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."

joseph crehan as ulysses grant
Joseph Cehan as Ulysses H. Grant in "Union Pacific." Paramount Pictures

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.

Ulysses S. Grant in 1864.
Commanding General Grant at the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864. Library of Congress

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."

roy gordon benjamin harrison stars and stripes forever
Roy Gordon as Benjamin Harrison in "Stars and Stripes Forever." 20th Century Fox

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.

benjamin harrison president
An 1896 photo of Benjamin Harrison. Library of Congress

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."

frank conroy william mckinley this is my affair
Frank Conroy as President William McKinley in "This Is My Affair." 20th Century Fox

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.

William Mckinley
William McKinley in his presidential portrait Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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

Robin Williams played a statue of Theodore Roosevelt that comes to life in the "Night at the Museum" movies.

robin williams night at the museum 3
Robin Williams in "Night at the Museum." 20th Century Fox

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.

theodore roosevelt
President Theodore Roosevelt pictured in the White House in 1908. AP Photo

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.

alexander knox woodrow wilson movie
Alexander Knox as Woodrow Wilson in "Wilson." 20th Century Fox

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.

Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson. Tony Essex/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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

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

warren g harding boardwalk empire malachy cleary
Malachy Cleary as Warren G. Harding in "Boardwalk Empire." HBO

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.

warren g harding
A photo of Warren G. Harding taken around 1920. Library of Congress

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.

bill murray franklin delano roosevelt hyde park on hudson
Bill Murray in "Hyde Park on Hudson." Focus Features

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 franklin delano roosevelt hyde park
President Franklin D. Roosevelt driving his own car around Hyde Park in 1938. AP Photo/George R. Skadding

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."

harry truman gary sinise
Gary Sinise as Harry S. Truman in "Truman." HBO

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

It's pretty accurate.

Harry S. Truman.
Harry S. Truman. Bettmann/Getty Images

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.

bruce greenwood jfk thurteen days
Bruce Greenwood as John F. Kennedy in "Thirteen Days." New Line Cinema

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.

john f kennedy in 1963
President John F. Kennedy in 1963. William J. Smith/AP

Still, he portrayed Kennedy well as a political maneuverer.

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

Screen Shot 2021 01 21 at 12.59.58 PM
William Devane as JFK in "The Missiles of October." CBS Television

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.

JFK
Former President John F. Kennedy in 1960. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Devane nailed the way JFK crinkled his forehead when he was listening. The wardrobe department also got JFK's tortoiseshell frames right.

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

bryan cranston lbj lyndon baines johnson all the way
Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Baines Johnson in "All the Way." HBO

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."

There are some similarities.

lyndon baines johnson lbj
President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1966. AP Photo

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."

frank langella richard nixon frost
Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon." Universal Pictures

The 2008 movie dramatizes Nixon's post-White House interviews with journalist David Frost.

The real-life Nixon had a broader head, a pudgier nose, and famously droopy jowls, but Langella's performance was praised.

richard nixon
Richard Nixon in the 1977 Frost interviews. AP

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.

alan rickman in the butler ronald reagan
Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan in "The Butler." The Weinstein Company

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

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

Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan in 1982. UniversalImagesGroup/Getty Images

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."

james cromwell as george hw bush w
James Cromwell as President George H.W. Bush. Lionsgate

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

The two men do not look alike.

george hw bush
Former President George H.W. Bush in 2008. AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

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."

dennis quaid bill clinton special relationship
Dennis Quaid as Bill Clinton in "The Special Relationship." HBO

The movie has nothing to do with Clinton's extramarital affair: It's about his relationship with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

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

bill clinton
Former president Bill Clinton. WP/RCS via Reuters

He doesn't otherwise resemble the 42nd president.

Clive Owen portrays Clinton in the FX limited series "Impeachment: American Crime Story."

Clive Owen as President Bill Clinton.
Clive Owen as President Bill Clinton in "Impeachment: American Crime Story." FX

The latest installment of the FX true crime series chronicles the events surrounding President Bill Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and his subsequent impeachment in the 1990s.

Owen wore prosthetics and hid his English accent to look and sound more like Clinton - they definitely look alike.

bill clinton
Former president Bill Clinton in 2020. Alyssa Pointer-Pool/Getty Images

Owen told Vanity Fair in August 2021 that he wore a prosthetic forehead and nose for the role.

"I didn't want to be buried in prosthetics because I find that super distracting," he said. "So we were able to find something that was sort of in the middle that was a gesture of him, and not be totally drowned and hidden behind a sort of false face."

Josh Brolin played No. 43, George W. Bush, in "W."

josh brolin george w bush oliver stone
Josh Brolin as George W. Bush in "W." Lionsgate

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.

George W. Bush
George W. Bush. Stewart F. House/Getty Images

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

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

southside with you trailer
Parker Sawyers as Barack Obama in "Southside With You." Miramax Films

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.

barack obama senator
Then-Senator Barack Obama. AP Photo/Seth Perlman

Sawyers captured his self-assuredness and charisma.

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

"Barry"
Devon Terrell as Obama. Netflix

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.

Young Obama
A young Obama. Laura S. L. Kong/Getty Images

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

Brendan Gleeson played President Donald Trump in Showtime's 2020 four-episode political drama "The Comey Rule."

Brendan Gleeson
Brendan Gleeson as Trump. Showtime

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.

Donald Trump .JPG
President Trump in 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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."

Joe Biden Confirmation movie
Greg Kinnear as Joe Biden in the 2016 HBO film "Confirmation." HBO/YouTube

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.

Joe Biden
Then-Senator Joe Biden during the Senate hearings for Clarence Thomas. Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images

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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