President Evil? Fictional US presidents on screen


Frank Underwood  (Kevin Spacey) is back, this time as US president in the third season of hit US TV drama House Of Cards. Scheming and manipulative, Underwood is definitely a bad sort. But which other fictional presidents, candidates and politicians both good and evil have graced our screens in the last fifty years or so? Here are some of the most memorable ones…

Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

A buffoonish take on the malevolent Senator Joe McCarthy, Iselin is a drunken idiot leading an anti-communist witch hunt effectively inspired by his scheming wife (Angela Lansbury).

 William Russell (Henry Fonda) in The Best Man (1964)

Gore Vidal’s screenplay essentially replays the 1960 Kennedy vs.  Nixon contest. There are a few odd twists, however.  Unlike the Democrat JFK and the Republican Nixon, both candidates are competing within the same party for the nomination. And here it is Cliff Robertson’s Nixon type who has the glamorous wife not Henry Fonda’s JFK.

President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) in Seven Days In May (1964)

Lyman’s liberal president is ahead of his time by about a decade in seeking détente but unfortunately provokes an attempted right wing military coup by Burt Lancaster’s General Scott in the process. Can Kirk Douglas save the day?

President Merkin Muffley in Dr Strangelove (1964)

“You can’t fight in here: this is the War Room!” One of three characters played by Peter Sellers in the film, resembles twice defeated 1950s Democrat presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson.


Unnamed President (Henry Fonda) in Fail Safe (1964)

Oops. After the US blows up a Soviet city by mistake, the US agrees to sacrifice New York to appease the Russians. Henry Fonda plays the president (Richard Dreyfuss reprised the role in the 2000 live TV version) and soon finds his decision will take on a tragic personal dimension.

Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate (1972)

Robert Redford’s candidate sacrifices so much in his campaign for the Senate that he doesn’t know what to do once he’s won.  Quite a tame film by modern standards.

Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) in Taxi Driver (1976)

Bland presidential candidate who narrowly escapes assassination by Travis Bickle. This unfortunately probably partly inspired the real life assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981.

President Richard Monckton (Jason Robards) in Washington: Behind Closed Doors (TV: 1977)

Basically it’s Richard Nixon, although Robards stops short of actually impersonating him.

President Barbara Adams (Loretta Swit) Whoops Apocalypse (1988)

The first woman president tries and fails to prevent Peter Cook’s mad British Prime Minister from starting World War III in this largely unfunny British satire.

Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins) (1992)

Director/star Tim Robbins plays the country western singer turned right wing 1990 Senate candidate in this winning mockumentary. His defeated liberal opponent is played by Gore Vidal.


Dave Kovic/Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline) in Dave (1995)

A professional presidential lookalike Dave stands in for the nasty US president temporarily. When the president has a stroke during a sex act, however, the job becomes more permanent.

President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) in The American President (1995)

One of many Nineties “like Clinton but a bit better” liberal dream presidents, Shepherd is a widower leaving him free to woo lobbyist (played by Annette Bening) much to nasty Republican opponent Richard Dreyfuss’s glee.

President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman in Independence Day (1996)

Hurrah! Bill Pullman’s heroic US president saves the world from alien invasion.

President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) in Mars Attacks! (1996)

Hurrah! Jack Nicholson’s over the top US president fails to save the world from alien invasion.

President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) Air Force One (1997)

There have been two presidents Harrison and one Ford, so why not President Harrison Ford? In a slightly bizarre premise, the president ends up machine gunning lots of terrorists who have invaded his plane while female Veep Glenn Close rules the roost on the ground. A spoof called Vatican One in which an ex-martial arts champion becomes Pope was sadly never made.


President Beck (Morgan Freeman) in Deep Impact (1998)

It may be the end of the world as we know it but President Beck feels fine.

Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) in Primary Colors (1998)

You remember Bill Clinton? Basically, it’s supposed to be him.

Senator Jay Billington Bulworth (Warren Beatty) in Bulworth (1998)

Beatty’s Senator basically has a crisis and arranges his own assassination. After snogging Halle Berry, however, he soon regrets this decision.

President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in The West Wing (TV: 1999-2006)

Perhaps the most fully realised fictional US president, Bartlet is a hugely intellectual New England academic who serves two terms as president in the long running series, surviving MS, scandal, government shutdowns, assassination attempts, the kidnapping of his daughter and numerous political reversals along the way. Sheen had played JFK in a memorable mini -series nearly twenty years before and is no less brilliant in this.


President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) in The Contender (2000)

Perhaps the most laidback president ever, there’s more than a hint of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski about Bridges’ Democratic incumbent in this West Wingy style drama. He even likes bowling.

President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) 24 (TV: 2001-2007)

Before there was “No Drama” Obama there was “Even Calmer” David Palmer. A black US president, Palmer’s presence on the series ended before Obama’s first presidential campaign got going.

President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) in Commander In Chief (TV 2005)

Taller than Bartlet, Geena Davis is easily the best thing in this short lived drama about the first woman president. Like most fictional women presidents, Allen comes to power as a result of her predecessor’s death, rather than being elected herself.

Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) in The Ides of March (2011)

Anti-big business, anti-car, handsome and charismatic Morris seems to be the perfect presidential candidate for the Democrats in this drama. But lo and behold: campaign aide Ryan Gosling soon uncovers skeletons in his closet.


Great Movie Switchovers


Few greater changes can occur on a movie’s production than the leading man being replaced at the last minute.

But what if history had played out differently? Yes, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones now, but it almost happened.

Just consider…


The role:  Adventurer/archaeologist Indiana Jones in Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

The first choice: Tom Selleck, star of TV’s Magnum PI.

The replacement: Harrison Ford. Despite small parts in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, Ford was not actually a star in 1981. Even his role as Han Solo in Star Wars had not assured him stardom in itself (any more than it did for his co-stars Mark Hamill or Carrie Fisher).

The switch: After struggling to receive serious attention from the industry into his mid-thirties, Selleck landed the role of Magnum in 1980. Although a big success, contractually Selleck found himself unable to take the role of Indiana Jones which went to Ford instead. Annoyingly, a strike on the set of Magnum meant that Selleck could probably have performed both roles anyway.

The result: The film was a box office smash and an all time classic, winning an Oscar nomination for Best Film and spawning three sequels.

What happened to the new star?:  Relatively late in life, Harrison Ford became one of the biggest movie stars of all time and for close to twenty years had a reputation for never being in a flop (in truth, the critically acclaimed Blade Runner and Mosquito Coast both failed commercially). In addition to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises he appeared in the highly regarded “grown up” films Witness, Frantic, Working Girl, Regarding Henry and Presumed Innocent.

And the first choice? Selleck stayed in Magnum – a big success in its day – until it was cancelled in 1988 (the character was killed off). He appeared in one or two transparent attempts to emulate Indiana Jones such as High Road to China and Lassiter during the Eighties as well as Quigley Down Under. He played the King in Christopher Columbus The Discovery (for which he received a Razzle) but aside from Magnum is probably best known for his role alongside Ted Danson and Steve Guttenberg in the comedy Three Men And A Baby and as Monica’s older lover Richard in Friends.

Conclusion: I’ve no desire to compound Tom Selleck’s misery on this subject but from what we’ve seen during his career, it’s hard to imagine he would have a) been as good as Indiana Jones as Harrison Ford was anyway or b) had the same career Ford subsequently enjoyed. Would Selleck have taken up a half arsed role in Cowboys and Aliens? Would Selleck have married Calista Flockhart? Would Selleck’s second wife have written ET? We must assume not.

Crumbs of comfort: Tom Selleck is still a household name. And he has arguably demonstrated more of a flair for comedy than Ford has. And don’t be too sympathetic: Selleck is a vocal supporter of the National Rifle Association.

The winner?: HARRISON FORD


The role: Captain Benjamin Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now (1979).

The first choice: Harvey Keitel, then best known for his roles in early Martin Scorsese films Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.

The replacement: Martin Sheen, previously the troubled James Dean-alike Fifties hoodlum in Terence Malick’s Badlands.

The switch: Keitel was fired and replaced by Sheen early in the troubled production. Coppola felt Keitel struggled to play Willard as a “passive onlooker”.

The result: Keitel must initially felt like he’d had a narrow escape. Apocalypse Now was soon christened “Apocalypse When?” by critics as the production overran, the crew in the Philippines were hit by a bout of food poisoning, director Ford Coppola grew increasingly megalomaniacal and co-star Marlon Brando arrived much fatter than expected and delayed production still further while he took the time to read the book Heart of Darkness upon which the film is loosely based. Although only in his thirties, Sheen, then struggling with alcohol, suffered a heart attack while filming. Despite these issues, the film was a critical and commercial success and is rivalled only by Platoon (starring Martin’s son Charlie Sheen) as the best ‘Nam film ever made.

What happened to the new star?: Despite quitting the booze and keeping busy, Sheen didn’t choose particularly great film roles during the next two decades. Indeed, the period saw him slightly eclipsed by his sons Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen. However, his role as President Josiah Bartlet in Aaron Sorkin’s log running TV drama The West Wing put him back on the map. Now in old age he appeared recently in the new Spider Man film and generally plays small “elderly father” roles.

And the first choice? Keitel slipped into near obscurity in the Eighties before enjoying a comeback towards the end of that decade playing Judas in Scorsese’s controversial Last Temptation of Christ and securing an Oscar nod for a role in gangster film Bugsy. The Nineties were good for Keitel with hard hitting acclaimed roles in Thelma and Louise, Jane Campion’s The Piano,  Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn and Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant and lighter roles (although again as a gangster/criminal type) in the likes of Sister Act. His profile has fallen in the 21st century though.

Conclusion: Hmmmm. Sheen has starred in two classic films Badlands and Apocalypse Now and one great series The West Wing. Harvey Keitel has starred in two classic films Mean Streets and Reservoir Dog and had notable support roles in three others Taxi Driver, Thelma and Louise and Pulp Fiction. Sheen is perhaps the slightly more famous of the two men, thanks partly to his sons. But oddly, as huge a deal as Apocalypse Now must have seemed at the time, in the long run, neither actor has been obviously more successful than the other. Both have kept busy, done some great stuff and both have done quite a lot of stuff you’ll never see.

The winner?: A DRAW


The role: Marty McFly in science fiction rom com Back To The Future (1985).

The first choice: Eric Stoltz, then best known for his role alongside Cher in Mask (no, not the Jim Carrey one).

The replacement:  Michael J Fox then the star of US sitcom Family Ties. The J doesn’t stand for anything. Michael Fox’s middle name is Andrew but he reasoned Michael A Fox might sound silly or even a bit conceited.

The switch: Brutal. Filming had commenced when Eric Stoltz was fired for playing the role too dramatically rather than as a comedy. Fox was lucky to be able to work around his Family Ties schedule although endured a punishing timetable.

The result: The film was a box office smash and is still much loved. There were two sequels.

What happened to the new star? Fox became a huge star overnight as the film coincided with the release of Teen Wolf, a film disliked by its star, which nonetheless did well. Fox appeared in the BTTF sequels and the weighty Casualties of War but his star waned in the early Nineties, probably in part due to Fox struggling to come to terms with the private news of the diagnosis of his Parkinson’s disease in 1991.He enjoyed an impressive comeback in 1996 with his role as a youthful looking political adviser (based on Bill Clinton’s own George Stephanopoulos) which led in turn to a triumphant return to sitcom in Spin City. He announced his illness in 1998 and has become a vocal spokesman for the disease since as well as voicing Stuart Little.

And the first choice? Poor Eric Stoltz must wish he could time travel and change history himself sometimes. But he did get to stab Uma Thurman through the heart in Pulp Fiction and directs Glee sometimes.

Conclusion: Although not cursed by the ill health of Michael J Fox, fame wise, sadly Stoltz isn’t even really a household name.

The winner? MICHAEL J FOX


The role: Several: the leads in Days of Heaven,  An Officer and A Gentleman and American Gigolo

The first choice: John Travolta, already a huge star after Saturday Night Fever and Grease.

The replacement: Richard Gere, who ironically had starred in the original London stage production of Grease in  1973.

The switch: Travolta foolishly turned down all these roles. Gere took them all instead.

The result: All the films did well. Days of Heaven was more of a critical than commercial hit.

What happened to the new star? Richard Gere became a star. He is still probably as much admired for these early roles as anything he has done since although enjoyed another massive hit with Pretty Woman in 1990. His career has had a few ups and downs over the years and may have been harmed slightly by his pro-Tibetan stance but he has never vanished from view. He returned to musicals for the Oscar winning Chicago in 2003, a role also turned down by John Travolta.

And the first choice? Travolta’s career endured a dramatic fifteen year slump relieved only by the success of Amy Heckerling’s Look Who’s Talking in 1990. By 1994, however, with the Seventies becoming cool again, turns in Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty suddenly made him very cool again and he returned to stardom. Occasionally, he’s made bad career choices since (the Scientology inspired Phenomenon and Battlefield Earth) and he’s not exactly “cool” anymore. However, he remains a star.

Conclusion: Gere to some extent owes his career to John Travolta’s early poor career choices. Yet as with Keitel and Sheen, the decades have evened the score somewhat.

The winner? A DRAWImage