At the stroke of midnight, The Dark Knight opened across the country this morning, to rave reviews, Oscar buzz and forecasts of a record-shattering box office performance. Most observers have chalked up the unprecedented anticipation for the film to its quality script and to the amazing and final performance of the late Heath Ledger. But we know the real reason: Senator Patrick Leahy.
That’s right: The 68-year-old chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as you might have heard, was given a role in the film, playing a man who is roughed up by Ledger’s knife-wielding Joker. And now C-Span-2’s loyal audience of Capitol Hill staffers, political dorks and elderly shut-ins, to whom the somnolent Leahy is a well-known figure, has responded by flooding America’s megaplexes to catch their hero on the big screen.
But this isn’t the first time that Hollywood has cashed in on the draw of America’s political class. Here are just a few other memorable acting turns by politicians:
* Senator Paul Simon, Saturday Night Live (December 1987): The big-eared, bowtie-clad Illinois Democrat took a detour from the White House campaign trail to appear with the musician who shares his same name. When announcer Don Pardo declared "Ladies and gentlemen, Paul Simon" at the top of the show, both the politician and the musician walked out onstage, arguing about which one was actually supposed to host the show. Eventually, Simon the politician relented, leaving the other Simon to host the rest of the show.
* Michael Dukakis, Cheers (November 1990): On the same day that Massachusetts voters went to the polls to choose Dukakis’ gubernatorial successor, the Duke—two years removed from his ill-fated presidential campaign—filmed an opening sequence with Ted Danson and George Wendt outside Boston’s Bull and Finch Pub, which was used for exterior shots in the show. In the scene, Dukakis buys a newspaper and says a quick hello as he walks past Danson and Wendt, who are too surprised to say anything back. And then the opening credits music rolls.
* Nancy Reagan, Diff’rent Strokes (March 1983): O.K., so Nancy and Ronnie were actors before they entered politics, but still, the spectacle of a first lady playing a meaty role in a sitcom episode was rather extraordinary. Reagan’s appearance dovetailed with her "Just Say No!" campaign. In the episode, Gary Coleman’s Arnold writes an article for his school paper about drug use by his fellow students. His teacher doesn’t believe him—but Nancy Reagan, who just so happens to be in New York and just so happens to hear about Arnold’s story, does. So she visits the Drummond house and offers to accompany Arnold to school the next day, and at the school she uses her feminine charms to elicit confessions of drug experimentation from several of Arnold’s classmates. Arnold’s teacher immediately apologizes and the students rush to the front of the room to hug the first lady. Surprisingly, Reagan’s visit didn’t have much of a long-term effect on series co-stars Todd Bridges and Dana Plato.
* Tip O’Neill, Dave (1993): Ivan Reitman’s comedy about a presidential look-alike who ends up running the country was the ultimate Washington insider’s flick, with numerous walk-ons by politicians and Beltway media figures. Most notably, perhaps, it marked one of the final public appearances by former House Speaker Top O’Neill, who died the January after the film’s release. In the movie, O’Neill, then 81 years old, is shown on the steps of the Capitol congratulating Frank Langella, who plays an adviser to the president, on the administration’s sudden embrace of left-wing populism—which, little does O’Neill know, has come about because the look-alike Dave is now in charge of the country.
* Bill Bradley, The Cosby Show (February 1989): Then a second-term New Jersey senator, Dollar Bill turned in a memorable performance as Cliff’s Teammate #1 in the episode "The Boys of Winter." The setup: Dr. Huxtable’s wife, Claire, finds a videotape of Cliff and his fellow doctors being humiliated in a basketball game by a group of female lab technicians. Cliff’s supposed doctor teammates are played by a group of aging basketball pros, including Walt Hazzard (who in real life had just been fired as the coach at UCLA), Dave DeBusschere and Bradley.