Hail to the TV chiefs. There have been many fictional U.S. presidents on TV over the years. From the plausible to implausible, from psycho to comic, congenial to evil, they have run the gamut. A few almost seemed electable, others indictable. One or two captured the best qualities of a real president. One or two others captured the essence of Genghis Khan.
So how to choose? My criteria for this list is simple, also highly subjective. If they were memorable, or a “first,” or just flat-out splendid, they deserve a place on this honor roll. Observant readers will also note the occasional contradiction, too. Some of these faux-chiefs were hardly memorable at all, their forgotten shows consigned to prime-time ignominy. But in their brief lives they accomplished something besides immortality — a reminder that even legendary actors playing presidents can make a wrong turn on their way to the fictional White House.
15. Samuel Arthur Tresch (George C. Scott), “Mr. President” (Fox, 1987-88)
A can’t miss — on paper, but what’s on-screen is all that counts. Developed by Johnny Carson, starring Scott, Madeline Kahn and Conrad Bain, “Mr. President” arrived on a new network that promised to shatter the rules of the established Big 3, but instead shattered nothing (although Scott’s career did take a small hit). In fact, “MP” wasn’t bad, just tame, while Scott couldn’t quite project being commander-in-chief.
14. Julia Mansfield (Patty Duke), “Hail to the Chief” (ABC, 1985)
Included here for one good reason — Duke’s Mansfield is believed to be the first female POTUS in TV history. Developed by Susan Harris, who hoped to capture lightning in a bottle again — after “Soap” — this was instead a TV lightning bug, to paraphrase Twain. Nothing remains of this seven-episode series, sadly, other than a clip or two on YouTube.
13. Richard Pryor, “The 40th President” (NBC, 1977)
Only about five minutes long, this sketch, which was part of Pryor’s short-lived NBC series, secures its POTUS TV honor roll spot because here Pryor imagined something no one ever had before on TV — a black president. Plus, the sketch was funny.
12. Constance Payton (Alfre Woodard), “State of Affairs” (NBC, 2014-15)
Woodard played TV’s first black female president, although this compelling hook wasn’t enough to outrun cancellation after just one season. Woodard was good as the steely-grim president facing a world of troubles, but this was a Katherine Heigl vehicle, and viewers voted no.
11. President (Richard Dreyfuss), “Fail Safe” (CBS, 2000)
Dreyfuss, as just “the president,” was a standout on this live 2000 teleplay — based on the 1964 movie about U.S. Vindicator fighter jets on a bombing run to Moscow that can’t be called back because the order has been jammed. Dreyfuss is seen mostly in tight close-up, speaking over the hot line to the Soviet premier, fully aware of what one wrong word could mean.
10. Conrad Dalton (Keith Carradine), “Madam Secretary” (CBS, 2014-present)
As former head of the CIA, Dalton knows stuff, and knows how to use it to get what he wants. His powers of persuasion are also considerable, and in fact, those set the entire series in motion when he convinced — or was it forced? — Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) to become Madam Secretary.
9. Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis), “Commander in Chief” (ABC, 2005-06)
ABC wanted to force this issue — why shouldn’t a woman be president of these United States? — and figured who better than half of the Thelma & Louise team to do the job? Alas, as a TV show, “Commander” was bunkum. ABC even hired Steven Bochco to salvage the series, but no luck. But ABC had the right idea and right lead: Davis conveyed strength and vulnerability and — like the show itself — struggled to establish her footing. That’s called relatable.
8. Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), “Scandal” (ABC, 2012-present)
Help me here because I haven’t been paying attention: Is Fitz still president, or did some outrageous/ridiculous scandal involving Olivia or the ill-fated invasion of some West African nation finally get him tossed out of the White House and onto the hard cold pavement of Pennsylvania Avenue where he (we can all agree) really belongs? Fitz is without doubt the greatest reprobate TV president in TV history and — we can also agree — we wouldn’t have him any other way.
7. Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones), “24” (Fox, 2009-2010)
Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones), “24” (Fox, 2009-2010) Great actors can make great TV presidents, and Jones — currently starring in “Transparent” — may be the most perfect example on this list. Over her two seasons, she possibly had a worse pair of days than Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). Taylor — an enduring idealist — did not even pretend to make them look easy. She finally resigned, after belatedly realizing that the decisions she had been forced to make (including an order to off Jack) were an abdication of those ideals.
6. Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin), “24” (Fox, 2005-2010)
Logan was the most venal TV president of them all, but he really gets bonus points for being the most incompetent, too. Sworn in after his predecessor was shot down while in Air Force One, Logan was an accidental president, his reign also a series of accidents, self-inflicted or otherwise. We would learn in time that he was complicit in David Palmer’s (Dennis Haysbert) assassination, and had orchestrated a terrorist attack, too. Itzin’s performance was terrific — “Nixonian” some called it, although he probably just channeled a little Rasputin, Machiavelli, and . . . Larry, Curly and Moe.
5. Glenallen Walken (John Goodman), “The West Wing” (NBC, 2003)
Another accidental president, Walken was the powerful and power-hungry Republican Speaker of the House, when President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and daughter Zoey (Elisabeth Moss) were kidnapped. Poor Jed went off the deep end, decided he couldn’t be POTUS for the moment and Walken is appointed. Walken took to the job quickly: He held a televised news conference, saying he had bombed some terrorist targets. “Our moral system works only if everybody plays by the same rules,” he explained. Walken, alas, didn’t last long. Zoey was eventually found, and her dad took back his old job. Too bad. Walken was fun while he lasted.
4. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), “House of Cards,” (Netflix, 2013-present)
Another great actor in a role he was made for, Spacey has created an indelible character who is chillingly competent and effortlessly evil. Even Logan of “24” never pushed anyone in front of an oncoming subway train, as Frank did. His motto: “For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.” And his view of the presidency: “The president is like a lone tree in an empty field: He leans whichever way the wind is blowing.”
3. Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), “Veep” (HBO, 2012-present)
Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), “Veep” (HBO, 2012-present) What is it about accidental TV presidents? (Meyer started out as vice president and was elevated to the Oval Office when the president stepped down.) They so often make the very best ones, or the most memorable. Louis-Dreyfus has her historic string of Emmy wins as evidence of just how remarkable her portrait of this needy narcissist has been. What’s more remarkable is how often “Veep” seems to parallel real life — as in right now — and how often Selina seems to parallel real politicians. Or as Selina herself once explained: “And you know why? Because they’re ignorant, and they’re dumb as [expletive]. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is democracy.”
2. David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), “24” (Fox, 2001-05)
Haysbert’s portrayal earns special recognition because many believe Palmer convinced an entire generation of viewers that an African-American could be president and — in fact — one day should be. On this list, he is the Goldilocks president — not too hot, not too cold, but just right. After Jack Bauer, he was the most important character on “24,” also the most compelling. Haysbert’s Palmer had that quality we seem to want in our idealized president — gravitas, with dignity. He also met — finally — a bad end. No “24” president to come after ever held the stature of Palmer, and in fact, most were the exact opposite — which boosted his stature even more.
1. Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen), “The West Wing” (1999-2006)
No TV actor pretending to be president ever got closer to creating the illusion of a real president than Sheen’s Bartlet. He continues to reside in the popular imagination, or some parts of it anyway, as both TV standard-setter and TV high-water mark. The acclaim of course is not universal, nor was it during his faux-presidency — which paralleled the real presidency of George W. Bush (and the last months of Bill Clinton’s). To progressives, he was the alt-universe fantasy president, and to creator Aaron Sorkin, the proxy for everything he thought a president should be. As POTUS, Bartlet was a miracle worker — peace in the Middle East, job creation at home, Social Security reform, and on and on. Beset with multiple sclerosis, he often suffered in private. A devout Catholic, he prayed often. Like the average “24” president, he was also beset, constantly. Controversies engulfed his administration, during which there was an assassination attempt and his daughter was kidnapped. Bartlet didn’t have it easy, but Sheen made it look easy. Once asked how he got through the turmoil, he explained, “You have a lot of help. You listen to everybody. And then you call the play.”