It's been 50 years since John F. Kennedy was assassinated — and in that time, dozens of actors have played the president in a wide variety of films and miniseries. With the semicentennial of Kennedy's death just two weeks from today, there's been a renewed focus on the life of JFK, with two big-name actors stepping into the role: James Marsden, who played him in this summer's ensemble drama The Butler, and Rob Lowe, who stars in National Geographic's Killing Kennedy — a docudrama based on Bill O'Reilly's book of the same name, which premieres on Sunday night.
Marsden and Lowe both give it their all — but there are decades of other performances that they have to compete with. Over the past 50 years, which actor has best captured John F. Kennedy? Judge for yourself:
1. Cliff Robertson, PT 109 (1963)
Cliff Robertson's starring turn as a young JFK may not be the most acclaimed or memorable in cinematic history, but his performance does have one thing going for it that no other actor can claim: The personal approval of Kennedy himself. This hagiography, which hit theaters during Kennedy's presidency under the direct oversight of father Joseph Kennedy, tackles Kennedy's naval career in the South Pacific during World War II. JFK insisted on choosing the actor who would play him, selecting Robertson from a number of screen tests that were sent to the White House — including one from Warren Beatty, whom Jackie reportedly preferred for the role.
2. William Devane, The Missiles of October (1974)
This ABC TV special, based on Robert Kennedy's memoir Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, sees William Devane — who won an Emmy for his performance — stepping in as JFK seven years after he launched his career by playing Robert Kennedy in the Off-Broadway play MacBird. His successor in the role of RFK? Future West Wing star Martin Sheen.
3. Martin Sheen, Kennedy (1983)
Before Martin Sheen took the White House as (fictional) President Josiah Bartlett in The West Wing, he played JFK in 1983's sprawling Kennedy, a five-hour miniseries that covered the entirety of Kennedy's term — including, for the first time on television, a harrowing recreation of his assassination.
4. Stephen Collins, A Woman Named Jackie (1991)
There are several films and miniseries that focus on Jackie Kennedy — see also: 1981's Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and 2000's Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis — but 1991's Emmy-winning A Woman Named Jackie, which starred Roma Downey as Jackie, devotes its entire second segment to "The Kennedy Years," with future Seventh Heaven star Stephen Collins playing JFK. Even more interesting is the man cast as Jackie's father, John "Black Jack" Bouvier: William Devane played JFK's father-in-law 17 years after he played JFK in The Missiles of October.
5. Patrick Dempsey, J.F.K.: Reckless Youth (1993)
This TV movie, which is based on Nigel Hamilton's bestselling biography of JFK's early years, stars Patrick Dempsey — yes, McDreamy himself — as a young JFK, in a story that spans a part of Kennedy's life that's relatively unexplored in popular culture: His early childhood through his nomination to Congress in 1947.
6. Bruce Greenwood, Thirteen Days (2000)
Director Roger Donaldson's dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis is one of the largest-scale Kennedy movies ever released, though its protagonist is actually the president's special assistant, Kenneth O'Donnell (played here by Kevin Costner, who cut his teeth on Kennedy movies with 1991's controversial JFK). But Bruce Greenwood still gets plenty of big moments as Kennedy, including a tightrope-walk of a speech to the American people.
7. Greg Kinnear, The Kennedys (2011)
Greg Kinnear played JFK in 2011's controversial miniseries The Kennedys, which was originally intended to air on History. After complaints of inaccuracy, History canceled its plans to air the series, stating that "this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand." The miniseries eventually aired on Reelz to so-so reviews, though both Kinnear and Barry Pepper (Robert Kennedy) were nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie at the Emmys later that year. (Pepper won.)
8. James Marsden, The Butler (2013)
Over the course of his decades-long career in The Butler, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) meets no fewer than five U.S. presidents, including Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Richard Nixon (John Cusack), and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman). But one of the film's major turning points comes early on, when John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) talks to Cecil about his son, who has been arrested while protesting segregation in Birmingham, Ala. "You know, I never understood what you all really went through until I saw that," says Kennedy. "My brother says these kids have changed his heart. They've changed mine, too."
9. Rob Lowe, Killing Kennedy (2013)
National Geographic's Killing Kennedy spends as much time on Lee Harvey Oswald (Will Rothhaar) as it does on JFK (Rob Lowe). But the film manages to squeeze in most of the major events from Kennedy's tenure as president, cycling from Election Night to the Cuban Missile Crisis to the assassination. "If there's a book about him or his presidency, I've probably read it," says Lowe, who considers himself a lifelong admirer of the Kennedy family, and describes playing the president as "an honor."
This article, which was originally published on May 29, 2013, was last updated on November 8, 2013.
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