So Daniel Day Lewis has nailed Abraham Lincoln. Bill Murray also apparently masters FDR in the forthcoming Hyde Park on Hudson while Anthony Hopkins (amongst others) have recreated Richard Nixon on screen while Dennis Quaid and John Travolta have (sort of) portrayed Bill Clinton. But what about all the other presidents who have never had a decent shot at being on screen? Here are a few possible contenders:
Who was he? Only the first US president (1789-97) and victor in the American War of Independence (or as the Americans more excitingly call it, the Revolutionary War).
Who could play him? Tricky. Tom Hanks? Washington doesn’t actually look much like any contemporary actor.
Prospects? On the one hand, it’s surprising there haven’t been more films about Washington. On the other, films about the early days of the Republic (Revolution, The Patriot, The Alamo) often perform badly at the box office. And are boring.
Who was he? The 26th president (1901-1909). The youngest ever Commander in Chief whose refusal to shoot a bear on a hunting expedition inspired the creation of the teddy bear. More importantly, he fought and won a vital domestic battle against the great monopolies (trusts) of his day and pledged to “speak softly and wield a big stick” in foreign policy. Later ran as an independent presidential candidate and is distantly related to Democrat president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45).
Who could play him? John Goodman, Oliver Platt, Nathan Lane. Anyone fat basically.
Prospects? Already a major character played by Brian Keith in The Wind and the Lion (1975), Teddy R also had a tragic upbringing and an exciting military career. He was also shot and wounded as a presidential candidate in 1912, but delivered a speech regardless. Potentially a great film.
Dwight David Eisenhower
Who was he? Ike was a leading commander in World War II and in peacetime 1953-61) a hugely popular president.
Who could play him? Anthony Hopkins. Ed Harris. Anyone bald.
Prospects? Ike’s military career was exciting but his presidency was uneventful. Unless you enjoy watching people play golf.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Who was he? Youthful charismatic inspiration to the world, Cold Warrior, first Catholic president and compulsive womaniser. Famously assassinated 1963.
Who could play him? Was played well on TV by Greg Kinnear and thirty years ago by Martin Sheen.
Prospects? JFK has been portrayed a few times in TV and film, but it’s surprising no one’s done a full scale biopic yet. War hero, family tragedy, nuclear confrontation, the battle for civil rights: it’s all there. That said, it’s quite tricky to square this with his womanising and dealings with the Mafia particularly as the Kennedy family remain such a potent force in the US. Their opposition effectively forced an end to the (admittedly dodgy) Greg Kinnear/Katie Holmes TV series The Kennedys.
Lyndon Baines Johnson
Who was he? Kennedy’s successor (1963-69) began his presidency well with a wealth of civil rights and anti-poverty legislation (“the Great Society”) but ultimately became hopelessly bogged down in the Vietnam quagmire.
Who could play him? Liam Neeson. Perhaps Daniel Day Lewis again.
Prospects? Ultimately a bit of a downer story-wise and the garrulous sometimes bullying LBJ is not an instantly loveable figure.
Who was he? Simple minded Hollywood actor turned ultra-conservative 40th president (1981-89). Almost started World War III but somehow managed to oversee the end of the Cold War instead.
Who could play him? Warren Beatty, Tom Hanks, Josh Brolin (who played him in the short lived TV series). Richard Dreyfus could play Gorbachev, Sacha Baron Cohen Colonel Gadaffi while John Hamm could be Oliver North.
Prospects? Great. Assassination attempts, arms to Ira, bombing in Libya and Reagan’s ultimate decline into Alzheimer’s. A movie is only a matter of time,
Films that sound like they should be about presidents …but are not.
George Washington: 2000 film set in a depressed contemporary US city. Not actually about the first US president.
Garfield: About a cat. Nothing at all to do with the 20th president James A. Garfield who was assassinated in 1881.
Ted: No. Not about Teddy Roosevelt at all. Seth MacFarlane adult comedy about a teddy bear who comes to life.
The Truman Show: A man who grows up in a world entirely created for TV. His name’s Truman Burbank. Nothing to do with atomic bomb dropper Harry S. Truman (1945-53). That one was actually portrayed by Gary Sinese in the decent 1995 TV movie Truman.
JFK: Actually very little about JFK himself, aside from a short biography at the start. O liver Stone’s film is instead a dramatised account of the investigation into why the 35th president was assassinated. And by whom.
Dead Presidents: Hughes Brothers’ crime drama. “Dead presidents” is US slang for banknotes (which, of course, have portraits of dead presidents on them).
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.
HARRISON FORD Vs TOM SELLECK
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 big star in 1981. Even his role as Han Solo in Star Wars had not in itself assured him widespread and enduring fame, 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 (although, 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. Despite never winning an Oscar, he is one of the biggest Hollywood stars of all time.
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 before we get too sympathetic: Selleck is a vocal supporter of the National Rifle Association.
The winner?: HARRISON FORD
MARTIN SHEEN Vs HARVEY KEITEL
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 the 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 power-mad and co-star Marlon Brando arrived much fatter than expected and delayed production still further while he took time out to read the Joseph Conrad novella, Heart of Darkness upon which the film is loosely based. Although only in his late thirties, Sheen, then struggling with alcohol, also 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 long-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 Warren Beatty gangster film, Bugsy. The Nineties were very good for Keitel with hard hitting acclaimed roles in Thelma and Louise, Jane Campion’s The Piano, Quentin 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 hell of a lot of stuff you’ll never see.
The winner?: A DRAW
MICHAEL J. FOX Vs ERIC STOLTZ
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’ incidentally, 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 much like it was a drama rather than as a comedy. Fox – unlike Tom Selleck on Magnum – was lucky to be able to work around his Family Ties schedule although endured a punishing timetable with many scenes being filmed early in the morning. Stoltz – who was physically similar to Fox although eight inches taller – remains in some shots used in the finished film.
The result: The film was a box office smash and is still much loved. There were two sequels, both big hits despite being slightly less good.
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 Fox personally but 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. He’s also enjoyed recurring 21st century TV roles in Boston Legal, The Good Wife and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
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
JOHN TRAVOLTA Vs RICHARD GERE
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 fashionable, 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.