Our Presidents serve us best when they make us laugh, right? We always say we want to admire the President, but we really look at them as just another form of entertainment. So let’s boil them down to that true form of entertainment: the movies. And if we’re looking at the Presidents in the movies, wouldn’t the most entertaining appear the most often?
So, which Presidents are the most entertaining, in terms of appearing on film?
The closest we’re able to come to a definitive list is probably the listings on IMDb, but they have to be tempered with the fact that they include both fictitious representations and documentary-realism. Nevertheless, we still have some measure of the Presidents’ popularity (and they might not be who you’d think). The top five Presidents on film, according to IMDb, are:
With 300 appearances (starting with the 1911 short “His First Commission”), Lincoln is far and away the most depicted President on film. Those 300 also include several not-yet-released appearances, including a 2013 miniseries called To Appomattox, a biopic directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis called Lincoln, to be released later this year, and the forthcoming film version of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Those 300 appearances average out to 75 appearances per year served in office (second only to William Henry Harrison, whose seven appearances and one month in office works out to 84 appearances per year).
With 145 appearances (his first was a short entitled “Washington Under the British Flag” in 1909), the first president is the second most depicted in film. His most recent “appearances” were a Futurama episode entitled “All the Presidents’ Heads” (which featured almost half the Presidents) and the direct-to-video movie The Road to Independence: the Movie, both of which were released in 2011.
Those 145 appearances average out to 18.125 per year (the “problem” with serving eight years as President), ranking Washington fourth on that list (behind John F. Kennedy’s 79 appearances and less than three years in office, for 27.88 per year).
Perhaps a surprise, the third President is the third most often depicted in film, with 105 appearances (starting with the 1911 short “The Declaration of Independence”). Jefferson, too, was in the Futurama episode and The Road to Independence.
Jefferson averages 13.125 appearances per year in office, making him number 7 on the list, behind James Garfield (six months in office, seven appearances: average of 14 per year) and John Adams (four years in office, 53 appearances: average of 13.25 per year).
The President who served the longest term (more than 12 years), ranks fourth, with 87 film appearances (starting while he was in office, with the 1937 Three Stooges short “Cash and Carry”). Later this year, he’ll be portrayed by Bill Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson.
FDR was the only President to be elected a third (and fourth) time. He was President for 12 years and three months, so he averages a scant 7.25 appearances per year in office. Ranking higher than FDR are Richard Nixon (65 appearances, five and a half years: 11.64 average), Ulysses Grant (see below), George W. Bush (possibly, see below), Theodore Roosevelt (73 appearances, seven and a half years: 9.73 average), and Bill Clinton (69 appearances, eight years: 8.625 average).
There’s some question as to who ranks #5. IMDb shows George W. Bush (President from 2001 to 2009) appearing 105 times, but some of those are actually depictions of his father, George H.W. Bush (President from 1989 to 1993). The senior Bush, queried separately, has 21 appearances listed (his first was in an episode of The Golden Girls in 1990, voiced by Harry Shearer). The second President Bush was probably first depicted in the short-lived comedy tv series That’s My Bush (2001).
With 84 appearances (starting with the 1913 drama “The Battle of Shiloh”). Grant is scheduled to appear in the miniseries To Appomattox (2013) and the biopic Lincoln (2012). He also recent appeared in Jonah Hex (2010) and Wild Wild West (1999). His 84 appearances, divided by eight years in office, gives him 10.5 appearances per year.
At the other extreme, those Presidents appearing least often include:
1. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
2. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
Two appearances: the 1952 musical Stars and Stripes Forever, and The American President.
3. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
4. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)
5. James Buchanan (1857-1861)
6. Chester Arthur (1881-1885)
Ian Randal Strock is the author of The Presidential Book of Lists: From Most to Least, Elected to Rejected, Worst to Cursed—Fascinating Facts About Our Chief Executives (published by Random House in 2008), the blogger at uspresidents.livejournal.com, and running a Kickstarter project for his next book, Ranking the Powers Behind the Oval Office.