When Stephen Colbert announced that he was running for president in 2007 on the platform of “Bring Truthiness,” he was far from the first to try to make the transition from Hollywood to Washington. Of course, Colbert’s campaign was a farce, meant to highlight the ridiculous nature of political campaigning, but there is also a tradition of successful actors using their visibility and popularity in order to be elected to public office or appointed to a government position. Even current Republican candidate Donald Trump has used his previous television experience in order to bolster his image and name recognition.
The celebrities on this list all had careers as politicians (though not necessarily as elected politicians). In contrast to celebrity activists, spokespeople, or UN Goodwill Ambassadors, they either had to end or put their film careers on hold in order to pursue their political ambitions full-time. Actors who have considered political careers or ran for office but were not elected were not included.
Making change on and off camera, here are 11 Actors Who Became Politicians.
11. Kal Penn
Kal Penn had a reoccurring role on House, M.D. (2004) when he was asked by President Obama to be the Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement in Washington, D.C. This sudden departure led to the harrowing end of his character, Dr. Lawrence Kutner, which shocked fans. Penn praised the writers’ decision to have his character commit suicide unexpectedly, abruptly, and without explanation, applauding their “huge risk.”
Penn took a break from his post at the White House in order to film A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011), but he later served as one of the thirty-five co-chairs of Barack Obama’s re-election campaign (2012) and on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (2013).
10. Sydney Poitier
Sidney Poitier made history both as the first African-American actor to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor (for his portrayal of Noah Cullen in The Defiant Ones (1958)) and as the first African-American actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor (for his portrayal of Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field (1963)). Poitier was also awarded an honorary Oscar in 2002 and the BAFTA Fellowship in 2016 for his lifetime achievement in film.
Poitier’s political career is no less impressive. As a dual citizen of the Bahamas and the United States, he served as the ambassador to Japan for the Bahamas for ten years (1997-2007). Merging the political and the artistic, Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 for his promotion of integrating the film industry on and off camera.
9. Shirley Temple
Shirley Temple first appeared in films at the age of three, delighting audiences with her acting, singing, and dancing. In 1935, she was the first child star to be rewarded with a “Juvenile Academy Award” at the Oscars. She was only six years old at the time, making her the youngest person to receive an Academy Award.
Most of Temple’s adult life, however, was devoted to helping to create political change and to promote American values abroad. Temple’s first attempt at politics wasn’t successful – she ran for Congress in 1967, but lost in the primary. However, she soon began working at the Foreign Service, as a delegate to the United Nations, then as the ambassador to Ghana, and later as the ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. After the Velvet Revolution, she helped to encourage diplomatic and democratic relations between the new Czech government and the United States. Temple also served as the U.S. chief of protocol for the State Department.
8. Grace Kelly
Over the course of Grace Kelly’s relatively short film career, she became an icon. In less than a decade, she starred in multiple Hitchcock films (Dial M For Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955)), and earned both a nomination for Best Supporting Actress (Mogambo (1953) and a win for Best Actress (The Country Girl (1954)) from the Academy.
Kelly met Prince Rainier III of Monaco at the Cannes Film Festival. Soon after, she left her career in film to marry him, becoming the Princess consort of Monaco. While on the throne, she was not allowed to continue her career in film, and so she was involved in a number of humanitarian causes. In addition to being a political public figure, Kelly created the La Fondation Princesse Grace to promote the arts and education. After her death, her eldest daughter, the Princess of Hanover, was appointed to lead the Foundation.
7. Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood is known for his work as both an award-winning actor and director. As a younger actor, he was best known for his portrayals of cowboys, such as in the television show Rawhide (1959) and in Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966). He also played Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry (1971), saying the famous, but oft-misquoted line, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” He continued to work as an actor, but increasingly became involved behind the camera as a director. He has won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director (for both Unforgiven (1992) and Million Dollar Baby (2004)), and he has been nominated for Best Actor twice for the same films.
Eastwood was elected Mayor of the small town of Carmel-By-The-Sea, California, a position that he held from 1986 to 1988. His main campaign promise was to overturn the “ice cream cone law” that restricted sales of ice cream on the local beach. He also served on the California State Park and Recreation Commission of both Gov. Grey Davis and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (who we’ll get to in a moment).
6. Glenda Jackson
British actress Glenda Jackson graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London before performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company. As she became better known for her work, she gradually became more involved in film. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress four times, winning a total of two times: the first for Women in Love (1969) and the second for A Touch of Class (1973). She found success on the stage, in film, and on television.
Jackson retired from acting in 1992 to run for political office, successfully becoming the Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate. A critic of both Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair and Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she gave scathing political speeches denouncing some of their more controversial political stances. She chose to not run for re-election for 2015.
5. Fred Thompson
In contrast to many other actors on this list, Fred Thompson switched back and forth between a career in acting and a career in politics. He appeared in Die Hard 2 (1990) as Ed Trudeau, the head of Dulles airport, and The Hunt for Red October (1990) as Rear Admiral Joshua Painter. However, he is perhaps most famous for his portrayal of District Attorney Arthur Branch in Law & Order (1990) and its various spinoff series. Thompson appeared in over one hundred episodes from 2002 to 2007.
Thompson is known for his portrayals of politicians and lawyers on television, but he was also a politician and a lawyer off camera. After getting his J.D. from Vanderbilt University, he worked as an attorney and lobbyist. He ran for the United States Senate in 1994 to fill Al Gore’s unexpired seat after Gore became the Vice President of the Clinton administration. Thompson won the seat, and represented the state of Tennessee. He also won his re-election in 1996. He briefly ran for president in the 2008 election, but dropped out of the race during the early primaries in January.
4. Al Franken
Al Franken is the one of the original writers of Saturday Night Live (1975). He also appeared on SNL as an actor, and was active as both a writer and actor from the show’s inception to 1980, and then again from 1985 to 1995. In addition to writing comedy and satire for Saturday Night Live, Franken has published a number of satirical books, often with politically-charged humor, including Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations (1996) and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (2003).
He was elected to the United States Senate in 2008, as the junior senator from Minnesota. He was re-elected in 2014, and currently serves as a senator. While his past as a comedian has been used as fodder by his political opponents, Franken has stated that his focus is on his current job.
3. Jesse “The Body” Ventura
James George Janos became a professional wrestler shortly after leaving the Marines, changing his name to Jesse “The Body” Ventura. He wrestled and later commentated for the World Wrestling Federation. Ventura also appeared in films such as Predator (1987), alongside future California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Ventura later transitioned to politics, promoting third-party candidates and running as a member of the Reform Party. Using a grassroots campaign, he won the seat as the Mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, winning as a third-party candidate in the election over both the Democrat and Republican candidate. After serving as Mayor (1991-1995), he also successfully became the 38th Governor of Minnesota (1999-2003).
Recently, Ventura announced that he would run for president if Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination over Bernie Sanders.
2. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Arnold Schwarzenegger is an Austrian-born bodybuilder and actor who later became a politician. He won the title of Mr. Universe in 1969, and began pursuing a career in film shortly afterwards. He is perhaps best known for his titular roles in Conan the Barbarian (1982) and The Terminator (1984), which helped him to star in many films as an action hero. He also starred in the science fiction film Total Recall (1990) as Douglas Quaid. Schwarzenegger’s distinctive accent and physicality have made him an icon and a pop culture reference.
Schwarzenegger also served as the Governor of California, first elected in 2003 and again in 2006. While it is rumored that Schwarzenegger has considered running for president, he is not a natural born U.S. citizen, but instead became one in 1983, which would bar him from being a candidate. In 2011, after finishing his second term as governor, Schwarzenegger returned to acting.
1. Ronald Reagan
Born in 1911, Ronald Reagan is both the oldest and the most famous actor turned politician on this list. While Reagan’s greatest achievement was becoming the 40th President of the United States, serving two terms from 1981 to 1989, his first career was as an actor in Hollywood. He starred in over 50 movies, including Kings Row (1942), Bedtime for Bonzo (1951), and Knute Rockne, All American (1940). His portrayal of the legendary college football star George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All American earned him the nickname “the Gipper,” which continued into his political career.
Reagan served as the president of the Screen Actors Guild before turning to politics and serving as the Governor of California. The same talents that fueled Reagan’s acting career served him well in the many influential speeches he would give as Governor and later President. “How can a President not be an actor?” he once asked.
Many actors have used their careers on camera to launch a career in politics. Did we forget anyone? Let us know in the comments!
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