12 Images

Photos: On-screen presidents

By Rachel Abramowitz, Patrick Kevin Day and Kate Stanhope

Don’t think you really know your presidential history? Think again. If you’ve consumed network TV or blockbuster films in the last few decades, you’ve picked up more presidential history than you know -- because our fictional leaders are often patterned after the real-life guys in the Oval Office. Here’s a quick primer to separate the fiction from the reality. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
<b>The fiction: ‘Air Force One’ (1997)</b>
When terrorists strike Air Force One, U.S. President James Marshall, a.k.a. Harrison Ford, is the one you want for true butt-kicking potential. He doesn’t just whine about evildoers, he vivisects them with his own hands!

The reality: Butt-kicking in the White House is usually limited to some harsh words these days, but back in Teddy Roosevelt’s day, the butt-kicking was for real. The one-time leader of the Rough Riders used to box in the state rooms of the White House and was the first president to study judo. (Claudette Barius / Columbia/TriStar)
<b>The fiction: ‘Dr. Strangelove’ (1964) </b>
For those who prefer their presidents to be bland functionaries with deeply hidden wells of narcissistic ego, then Merkin Muffley is your man. Muffley is one of three characters Peter Sellers plays in Stanley Kubrick‘s seminal satire of nuclear war.

The reality: In appearance and mannerisms, Muffley was patterned after 1950s-era two-time Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. (Associated Press)
<b>The fiction: ‘Dave’ (1993) </b>
When the real president falls into a coma, amiable presidential impersonator Dave (Kevin Kline) gets his shot at the real thing and winds up thwarting his would-be presidential Svengali, setting the nation back on track.

The reality: Amiable everyman playing the role of a president known to the American people as a heartless bureaucrat? Equal parts Mr. Smith and Merkin Muffley. Add some jelly beans and you get Ronald Reagan. (Francois DuHamel)
<b>The fiction: ‘The American President’ (1995) </b>
Shouldn’t presidents get some love? In this romantic comedy, widower President Michael Douglas falls for a sparky environmental lobbyist, played by Annette Bening, and what do you know? She helps him get back his liberal backbone.

The reality: “Bachelor President” could be a bad ABC reality series, but the country’s 15th president, James Buchanan, never married. His fiance killed herself after he ignored her and he spent the 15 years prior to his presidency lived with Alabama Sen. William Rufus King, leading many to speculate that Buchanan was gay. Their families destroyed all correspondence between the two men. (Francois Duhamel / Castle Rock Entertainment)
<b>The fiction: ‘Independence Day’ (1996) </b>
When the country is attacked by aliens, President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) not only rallies the troops, but he also climbs into the cockpit of a plane and leads them into battle.

The reality: Being president during a major attack on American soil and a gung-ho attitude toward war make Whitmore an easy comparison to President George W. Bush. His readiness to speechify in a flight suit before flying off to fight the bad guys seals the deal. (Melissa Moseley / Twentieth Century Fox)
<b>The fiction: ‘Deep Impact’ (1998) </b>
When a killer comet approaches Earth, President Thomas Beck prepares the nation for its uncertain future. Beck’s suave. He’s calm. He knows what he’s doing as much as anyone can possibly know what he’s doing. He’s ... Morgan Freeman.

The reality: A suave, calm commander in chief able to keep Americans (at least semi) calm in the midst of a crisis? Sounds a wee bit like President Obama, no? (Myles Aronowitz / Paramount Pictures)
<b>The fiction: ‘Primary Colors’ (1998) </b>
Based on Joe Klein’s novel, the film tells the story of a charismatic but libidinous Southern governor (John Travolta) whose campaign for president is almost derailed by his affair with his wife’s hairdresser and his collegiate dabbling in antiwar protests.

The reality: A charismatic politician from the South known for his adultery as well as indulging in the hippie counter-culture? The only thing different between President Clinton and Travolta’s Gov. Stanton is ... well ... almost nothing. Many characters in the novel and film are said to be based on members of Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. (Francois Duhamel / Universal Studios)
<b>The fiction: ‘Mars Attacks!’ (1996) </b>
When faced with evil Martians, President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) attempts peaceful overtures. Not such a good idea. Winds up impaled by a red and green Martian flag.

The reality: Peace-loving peanut farmer Jimmy Carter spent much of his presidency attempting to calm hostilities around the world, but ultimately it was the hostage crisis in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that drove a stake through the heart of his reelection hopes. (Warner Brothers)
<b>The fiction: ’24' (Season 5, 2006)</b>
Gregory Itzin plays one the most Machiavellian presidents in TV history, leading a government-wide conspiracy to secure oil in Central Asia for the good ol’ USA.

The reality: President Logan’s heavy hand in the oil conspiracy, as well as his resignation from office, make him the clearest counterpart to President Nixon. Even President Logan’s life after the White House closely reflects that of President Nixon’s, when he lives under house arrest, remorseful and alone. (Fox)
<b>The fiction: ‘The West Wing’ (1999-2006) </b>
Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen) is the liberal fantasy president, brilliant (Nobel Prize for economics), honest, compassionate. He even brought about peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. But he can get New England grumpy when crossed and had a crippling case of MS he hid from the public.

The reality: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a corporate lawyer, not an economist, but his deft handling of the Great Depression and the creation of the New Deal should be enough to earn him an honorary doctorate on the subject. His fireside chats made him America’s grandfather in chief during World War II, even though he did his best to hide his growing illness (now considered to be Guillain-Barré syndrome) from the electorate. (NBC)