Joseph Smith on film: Six actors who played the prophet — and how they did

From a classic movie vampire to a former Superman, many have tried to portray the Mormon founder.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Nathan Mitchell portrays Joseph Smith in the 2005 biographical drama "Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration," which was produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The recent discovery of a daguerreotype purported to be the only known photo of Joseph Smith opened up a conversation about what the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints looked like — with some historians doubting that the image was really him.

If the photo evidence is scarce, moviemakers tend not to worry so much about whether actors look exactly like the historical figure they’re portraying. So when it comes to portraying Joseph Smith in movies, the variety over the years has been striking.

What’s tricky with portraying a religious figure like Smith isn’t the look; it’s matching the attitude, according to Casey Griffiths, associate professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.

With Smith, Griffiths said, it’s “the same challenges associated with any religious figure, in that the actor and their image becomes associated with the person. And that puts a lot of pressure on the actor.”

Viewers can, he said, “blur lines between the actor and the role, and we carry this huge set of expectations, some of which are really emotional with a religious figure like Joseph Smith, that sometimes the actor just doesn’t want or feel the need to live up to.”

Here are six actors who portrayed Joseph Smith on film, with commentary from Griffiths about how they fared.

(20th Century Fox) Vincent Price, portraying Joseph Smith in the 1940 Western epic "Brigham Young."

Vincent Price

“Brigham Young” (1940)

Long before he made his name with monster movies (and narrating Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”), Price put his serious-actor chops on display playing the 19th-century church founder in this Western epic about a pioneer couple (Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell) trekking with Young (Dean Jagger) to Utah. The movie’s finale, which depicts the Mormon cricket infestation and the “miracle of the gulls,” was considered a triumph of special effects in its day.

“It’s kind of Vincent Price before he became a caricature of himself,” Griffiths said. “This is a much more dignified, understated performance. … He gives a great performance that’s very sympathetic.”

Richard Moll

“Brigham” (1977)

A much-maligned biopic of Young, Griffiths said “that movie isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation. I mean, it’s bad, but it still gets credit for dealing with some of the controversial stuff.”

The 6-foot-8 Moll made his film debut as Joseph Smith, seven years before he would start a run as the hulking bailiff Bull on the sitcom “Night Court.” Moll’s presence is one of the reasons the movie gets ridiculed, though Griffiths said, “I was actually surprised that I liked him.”

Jonathan Scarfe

“The Work and the Glory” trilogy (2004-2006)

Scarfe played Smith in this three-part adaptation of Gerald N. Lund’s historical novels, depicting the fictional Steed family against the backdrop of the church’s creation and migration to Utah. (Fun fact: The series was bankrolled by the late Utah Jazz owner and auto dealer Larry H. Miller.)

“He’s my wife’s favorite Joseph Smith — she says he’s the cutest,” Griffiths said, acknowledging that Scarfe “is really charismatic.”

Recalling a scene in which Smith describes his “First Vision,” Griffiths said Scarfe “kind of captured the wonder … and this openness. ‘I can’t believe this happened to me, but it’s happening to me.’ And as someone who is coming from outside of church culture, I thought he did a really good job investing in the character.”

Nathan Mitchell

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Nathan Mitchell portrayed the Prophet Joseph Smith in the church's 2005 movie, "Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration."

“Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration” (2005)

Mitchell is the screen Smith most current Latter-day Saints know, since he played the founder in a much-screened church-produced biography.

Griffiths said Mitchell “really does a nice job portraying Joseph as a human figure, as an emotional person.” In his research, he also learned Mitchell in his private life spends more time as a youth minister than as an actor, matching “that pastoral spirit that a lot of people like to associate with Joseph Smith.”

Dean Cain

“September Dawn” (2007)

Griffiths had no comment on this hammy anti-Mormon melodrama, which depicted the Mountain Meadows Massacre and laid the blame largely on Brigham Young (Terence Stamp). And Griffiths stayed silent regarding Dean Cain, the former Superman, who appeared in flashbacks as Smith. Griffiths did joke about “Napoleon Dynamite” star Jon Gries’ portrayal of Young’s enforcer, John D. Lee: “Uncle Rico gives a good performance in that movie.”

Paul Wuthrich

“Witnesses” (2021)

This recent entry in the Latter-day Saint cinema genre deals with Smith’s translation of gold plates into the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon — but Wuthrich’s Smith is a supporting player, as the focus is on the three men who swore to Smith’s translation and how they suffered because of their public testimony.

Wuthrich, Griffiths said, “did come across as very young to me,” though the actor was trying to capture Smith from 21 to 38. “He did capture the earnestness, and the relationship between [Smith and the three witnesses].”

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