Playing the President
Brendan Gleeson as Trump on Showtime, and Martin Sheen’s West Wing Reunion on HBO Max.
Irish actor Brendan Gleeson is widely acknowledged as one of the finest, most versatile performers of his generation. But it’s a safe bet that roughly half of his audience is not going to like him in his latest role. That’s because Gleeson is slated to play the most polarizing political figure of the 21st Century – President Donald J. Trump – in the forthcoming Showtime series The Comey Rule.
Based on the book A Higher Loyalty, by former FBI director James Comey, the four-hour series “tells the story of two powerful men, whose strikingly different personalities, ethics and loyalties put them on a collision course,” according to Showtime.
Not surprisingly, the show – which will air September 27 and 28 – has already been the subject of controversy. Showtime initially planned to broadcast The Comey Rule after the 2020 election, prompting writer/director Billy Ray to publish a letter criticizing the airdate. Co-stars such as Jeff Daniels hinted they would not promote the show if it aired after Election Day. A story on Deadline.com noted Showtime “chief Shari Redstone has a strong relationship with (President) Trump.”
Either way, the show will go on in a few weeks – and Brendan Gleeson is just the latest in a long line of Irish and Irish American actors who have portrayed U.S. presidents onscreen.
Celebrated actor/director Kenneth Branagh – a Belfast native – portrayed Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 2005 HBO movie Warm Springs. The film explored how FDR managed to become such a prominent political figure, even after being stricken with polio.
Much of the film was actually shot in Warm Springs, Georgia, where Roosevelt spent a lot of time in the hopes it would cure the disease, or at least ease his symptoms. Branagh was also seen in the movie driving a specially-equipped car that FDR was also taught to drive. A cottage in the film was also used by Roosevelt. Warm Springs, which also starred Cynthia Nixon as Eleanor Roosevelt, won five Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Made for TV movie, and was also nominated for three Golden Globes.
Irish American star Bill Murray also portrayed FDR in the 2012 movie Hyde Park on Hudson. The film explores Roosevelt’s little-known relationship with a distant cousin, Maragret “Daisy” Suckley, and was based on private journals not known about until after Suckley’s death. Hyde Park on Hudson also starred Laura Linney and Olivia Coleman as Queen Elizabeth – the mother of Queen Elizabeth II, whom Colman memorably portrayed in the Netflix show The Crown. Hyde Park on Hudson also features a character based on FDR’s trusted Irish American adviser Thomas “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran.
Murray’s fellow Illinois native and Irish American John Cusack portrayed President Richard Nixon in the 2013 film The Butler. That movie revolved around a servant at the White House (Forest Whitaker) who is an unwitting witness to history. A host of Hollywood talents portray American presidents in The Butler, from Robin Williams (Dwight D. Eisenhower) to Liev Schreiber (Lyndon Johnson). Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda portrayed Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
America’s only Irish Catholic president – John Kennedy – is portrayed in The Butler by James Marsden. Kennedy is arguably, the president about whom the most movies have been made, from the autobiographical (1963’s PT-109, with Cliff Robertson as the future president) to the conspiratorial (Oliver Stone’s JFK, though Kennedy is really not featured in this 1991 thriller). Ironically, Irish Americans have typically not depicted JFK on film, though Patrick Dempsey did play a pre-presidential Kennedy in the 1993 TV mini-series Reckless Youth.
Perhaps the most famous president in Hollywood is one who is too good to be true – literally. The beloved but fictional Josiah Barlett was portrayed for seven seasons on West Wing by proud Irish Catholic Martin Sheen. And Sheen is still running a campaign, of sorts, these days. As part of a voter awareness project, Sheen will be reprising his West Wing role, along with many other cast members, for a West Wing reunion, to be filmed in Los Angeles in October and expected to air on HBO Max before the November election.
Tom Deignan is an author, teacher, and columnist for the Irish Voice and Irish America (tdeignan.blogspot.com).