Frank's Faves: Actors who have played George Washington

Frank's Faves: Actors who have played George Washington

Yeah, I'm griping again. Sorry.

It's only been a couple weeks since I bemoaned the lack of a feature movie about Champaign's own Olympic golden girl, Bonnie Blair.

But Presidents Day earlier this week — and specifically, George Washington's birthday today — presents us with yet another colossal omission amid Hollywood's normally over-the-top obsession with hero worship:

Why is it you have to be either assassinated or impeachable to be a president worthy of blockbuster treatment in the movie industry?

Honestly, can you think of a single feature film about America's first president? Oh, sure, there have been a couple good ones made for television, but none for theatrical release that I'm aware of. What, George is good enough for the quarter, the $1 bill, the name of our capital and even a humorous cameo in a GEICO commercial, but he doesn't rate a war movie, a biopic, maybe a historical romance or even a "George Washington: Vampire Hunter"?

What does the guy have to do?

I liked the suggestion of one blogger I read who wanted to see an epic trilogy made about Washington — filmed all at the same time with the same cast (as Peter Jackson did with his "Lord of the Rings" series), but with each film released a year apart. The first part would deal with Washington's youth and early military career in the French and Indian War; the second with his service as commander-in-chief in the Revolutionary War; and the third with his two-term presidency.

And what actor to fill those huge boots? Hmmm. That's a toughie. Washington was known for his imposing stature and commanding presence, while coming across as soft-spoken and reserved. Maybe Liam Neeson as an elder Washington; Chris Hemsworth as cherry-tree-chopper in his youth? What do you think?

In all honesty — which, of course, Washington was famous for — I suspect I may not be qualified to offer an objective opinion on the matter, as I have an undisclosed vested interest in this particular historical figure. So, in the interest of full transparency, journalistic integrity and what have you, I should make a small disclosure here:

I have a potential conflict of interest on this subject. I actually have a family connection to George Washington. Really.

No, I'm not even remotely related to him, but as my dad discovered in his family genealogy research years ago, one of my ancestors did report a memorable encounter with our first commander-in-chief when applying for his Revolutionary War veteran's pension later in life.

It goes like this: His name was John Pickens, he was my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather on my mother's side, and he was commanding a picket guard near a place called Iron Hill (in New Jersey, I believe) when Gen. Washington rode up with some officers and a unit of cavalry. Sgt. Pickens hailed the company and ordered them to stand and be recognized. Washington, who happened to be in civilian clothes at the time, asked if Pickens did not know him, to which my ancestor replied, "I know no man while on duty."

Washington asked why they might not pass, to which Pickens replied that the enemy was stealing a march: "They are advancing — listen, you will hear them." By Pickens' account, silence was ordered, and the enemy's movement was distinctly heard. Washington asked my forbear his name and to what corps he belonged, then rode off at full speed.

Pickens' unit skirmished with the enemy all that day, and that night, it joined the main army. At roll call the next morning, Pickens said he was alarmed to hear himself called out in front of the officers, "but to his joy, received the praise of Gen. Washington in the presence of several officers and a present from him for his fidelity."

I have no idea what that gift was or what became of it, but I must confess, I get a kick out of imagining my great-great-great-great-great-gramps telling the father of our country he doesn't care WHO he is, he's not entering camp without the password!

And then getting a public pat on the back for it from the big guy himself? Come on, Hollywood, there's a story for you! I'm available to discuss rights and royalties any time ... but in the meantime, I cannot tell a lie; these are:


— Barry Bostwick in "George Washington" (1984) & "George Washington II: The Forging of a Nation" (1986). Best known for his campy role as Brad Majors in the musical cult fave "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975) and more recently as New York City Mayor Randall Winston in the 1996-2002 TV sitcom "Spin City," Bostwick saved his best performance for the 1980s TV miniseries that follows the early career of our first president through the Revolutionary War, with the sequel focusing on his two terms as president. Bostwick does a stand-up job in what it is a famously difficult role, with excellent support from Patty Duke as Martha Custis Washington and Jaclyn Smith as Sally Fairfax.

— Jeff Daniels in "The Crossing" (2000). With probably the best acting chops on this list, Daniels is no stranger to rising to the task of portraying historical characters on the big screen, having shone as Union Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in "Gettsyburg" (1993) and "Gods and Generals" (2002). His solid performance here, as well as the strength of the story itself, is a major reason this TV movie relating Washington's miraculous surprise crossing of the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton won a Peabody and an Emmy.

— David Morse in "John Adams" (2008). This Emmy-winning HBO miniseries about the life of the titular Founding Father gave the former "St. Elsewhere" star a rare chance in recent years to play a hero — albeit with a bulbous prosthetic nose and bad teeth — in a supporting role. Those cosmetic additions actually hinder his performance a bit, in my opinion, but there's no denying he LOOKS the part, nor that this excellent historical drama deserves its record for the most Emmy wins (13) by a program in a single year.

— Jason O'Mara in "Sons of Liberty" (2015). The Irish actor who played Washington in this History Channel miniseries has confided in interviews that he felt self-conscious about playing an American icon believed to stand 6-foot-4 when O'Mara himself is 6 feet. But make no mistake, even at 4 inches shy, he does a superior job of presenting an imposing, athletic figure in every one of his scenes. In fact, from his fierce battle scenes to his reading of the Declaration of Independence to the troops, this could easily be my favorite Washington.

— Kelsey Grammer in "Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor" (2003). The former star of classic TV sitcoms "Cheers" and "Frasier" is nowhere near the top of the list of actors I would cast in this TV movie about Washington's friendship with and ultimate betrayal by Benedict Arnold. But give him credit for playing the part straight and with dignity while being upstaged by Aidan Quinn as the title hero-turned-villain.

Topics (2):Film, Television