Archive for Sunday, November 5, 2000

Actors portray different sides of presidents

November 5, 2000


Do you read Tony Kornheiser? You should. He and Ellen Goodman make me forget that George Will and Cal Thomas are in this newspaper. Tony inspired me as he talked about the people we've seen recently playing presidents in the movie and on the tube.

He likes Martin Sheen, on "West Wing." So do I. He likes Michael Douglas, and I've thought what a great first lady Annette Bening would be (but not as Warren Beatty's wife). He liked Kevin Kline in "Dave," and "Dave" is one of my favorite movies. He didn't mention Tom Selleck, who played a candidate recently; Selleck admits to being a Republican. Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course, wouldn't be eligible. If he were he'd be a Republican. He has a wife who just may be a Democrat. John Travolta? Can you imagine that creep in the White House?

I remembered some of the people who played politicians probably before Kornheiser was born. I've been interested in this since I was a wee lad, defeated in the sixth grade in a classroom debate when three girls who were for FDR defeated us three boys who were for Hoover.

Movies about politics didn't do well in olden times. If a movie was about A. Lincoln they might do all right; Lincoln was an untouchable. I first saw Lincoln in a movie with Walter Huston, 1930. Not very good. It even had Anne Rutledge, played by Una Merkel. In 1939 we got two Lincolns, Henry Fonda as the Rail Splitter still a young lawyer and Raymond Massey as Lincoln just about to leave for Washington. Massey was a wild John Brown about the same time. I saw John Carradine ordering James Stewart, a Civil War soldier, to write home to his mother. My favorite Lincoln is Sam Waterston, of "Law and Order," playing Lincoln to a shrewish Mary played by Mary Tyler Moore.

Few George Washingtons. Movies about the 18th century didn't do well. Barry Bostwick, that goofy mayor on "Spin City," played George in the French and Indian War.

I surfed through that Internet I call my mind and tried to pull out other actors and movies and TV shows. Ken Howard, who even had red hair, was a good Thomas Jefferson in "1776." John Adams is usually played by stuffy types, William Daniels in "1776" or George Grizzard, who played Washington in a mini-series back in Bicentennial days. Oh, yes, Nick Nolte was in "Jefferson in Paris," a movie mainly geared to the stuff about Sally Hemings.

Burgess Meredith was James Madison in a movie that had Ginger Rogers as Dolley. Both seemed all right. This had the British burning the White House and Ginger saving a portrait of Washington.

Andrew Jackson has been with us several times. Lionel Barrymore once played him, and I liked a movie that had Brian Donlevy as a ghostly Jackson coming back to help William Holden fight some political thieves. Charlton Heston, who played a lot of historic folks, some without NRA hand guns, was Jackson to Susan Hayward's Rachel. Heston probably hates remembering that he played a Democrat, but his Jackson would willingly have shot or hanged both Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun.

I have no memory of anyone playing Grant. I have a vague memory of an actor named Sidney Blackmer playing William McKinley. Did you see Tom Berenger as Theodore Roosevelt in "Rough Riders"? Good show. I quite liked Brian Keith as TR, especially showing how he'd flash his big teeth and rassle a grizzly bear.

Alexander Knox was a splendid Woodrow Wilson in a World War II movie that was full of patriotic talk, and pro-League of Nations talk. Knox would have been all for the United Nations. We've had a few trying to be Franklin D. Roosevelt, including, recently, John Lithgow and Jason Robards. The best FDR was Ralph Bellamy in "Sunrise at Campobello," which was mainly about the polio attack.

Gary Sinise was good as Harry Truman. So was E. G. Marshall. Ronald Reagan, of course, was an actor in all his years as president, even remembering doing some things he didn't do. He told Tip O'Neill that once he played Grover Cleveland and Tip told him, no, it was Grover Cleveland Alexander, of baseball.

Check out Brian Donlevy in "The Great McGinty," a fine political tale, and of course Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith. Jimmy, who became an arch-conservative, seemed to forget that he was fighting that kind of guy when he was Mr. Smith.

Calder Pickett is a professor emeritus of journalism at Kansas University. His column appears Sundays in the Journal-World.

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