[Editor's Note: Today, Feb. 6, is Ronald Reagan's birthday.]
In 1937, 26-year-old Chicago Cubs radio announcer Ronald Reagan found his acting bug biting again. The former Dixon, Ill., native performed on stage in high school and college but during the Great Depression he had drifted into the sports world.
In those days the Cubs trained in California, and Reagan traveled with them to get away from the Iowa cold and pursue his movie star dream.
A friend arranged a screen test for him at Warner Brothers; however, studio executives had mixed reactions. He was no Robert Taylor, but he did have more of an all-American look than some of the stars that toiled in the Warner factory, such as James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.
The glasses and crew cut had to go. When questioned about his acting experience, Reagan told several lies to pad his resume. The casting director asked him to stick around an extra day for more tests. "No dice," he said feigning indifference when he was really desperate. "I'm on the train with the Cubs."
He left the studio thinking he had blown any chance to be signed by them. He was amazed that same day when Warner made an offer to put him under contract at $200.00 a week, and hastily agreed before they changed their minds.
In typical Hollywood fashion, the former radio announcer was cast as a radio announcer. It seemed like in every film his big line involved him grabbing a phone and shouting, "Get me the city desk! I have a story that will break this town wide open!" Reagan, a former lifeguard, preferred playing B-movie heroes over characters like the drunken socialite he portrayed alongside Bette Davis in “Dark Victory” (1939) even if meant less money.
Young Ronnie quickly learned that Hollywood could be a cutthroat town. He dated some of his leading ladies who fell out of love with him after their movie work was over.
He worked with insecure stars like Errol Flynn, who demanded that the taller Reagan not stand next to him on camera. And there were tough directors like the Hungarian born Michael Curtiz, with whom he made “Santa Fe Trail” (1940).
In one scene, the novice actor watched in amazement as Curtiz kept telling an extra playing a minister to keep moving backwards until he fell of a scaffold, severely injuring his leg. "Get me another minister!" shouted the angry director.
In order to better his career, the sports-loving Reagan suggested to his bosses that they buy the story of the legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. Reagan could play the role of the tragic halfback George Gipp. Warner Brothers only liked the first idea. "You're too small to play George Gipp!" they quipped.
Reagan produced an old photograph of himself playing college football; he was actually bigger than Gipp, and as a result, he edged out John Wayne and William Holden for the part.
“Knute Rockne All American” (1940) was not all fun and games. One day Reagan showed up to shoot the scene where Gipp made a spectacular 80-yard run for a touchdown. He was told he was not needed. They would film something else instead. He proceeded to eat a huge, unhealthy breakfast.
Then he was hastily informed they were going to film the run after all. After the third 80-yard take, Reagan dashed far past the goal line where he privately lost his meal.
He was a political animal right away, driving his Hollywood co-workers to distraction with his praise of Franklin Roosevelt’s policies. It was mostly just talk; Reagan rejected any suggestion that he might someday go into politics.
His friends saw long before he did that he had chosen the wrong profession.
There was one time when the ardent Democrat was yammering on about the necessity of government aid when one of his listeners interrupted and suggested he run for president. "You don't like my acting either!" he wailed.
Ronald Reagan's star rose with his performance in the dramatic “King's Row” (1942) in which his character’s legs were amputated, and he screamed out, "Where's the rest of me?" The film's success provided his agent Lew Wasserman with the leverage to negotiate a solid movie star salary. But his career momentum slowed when later in World War II he became an Army captain in the Officers' Reserve Corps of the Cavalry.
His terrible vision kept him from seeing combat; he was told that if he were sent overseas he would accidentally shoot an American general and probably miss him. He worked in propaganda films like the Irving Berlin musical “This Is The Army” (1943) where he received only his military pay. He heard young girls who worked at his Army base swooning over newer, younger stars, and when the war ended, Reagan felt insecure and past his prime.
Reagan met his first wife Jane Wyman on the set of “Brother Rat” (1938). She wondered if his niceness was just the act of another Hollywood phony.
She recognized that Ronnie was the real deal when she saw he was just as kind to waiters as he was to big shots at the studio. The harmony in their relationship disappeared as her career eclipsed his.
He once stated that the movie “Johnny Belinda” (1948), for which she won an Academy Award playing a deaf mute, should be a co-defendant in their divorce.
There was gossip about her having a love affair with her co-star Lew Ayres. And her husband's constant harping about politics drove Wyman crazy; the couple's friends would note her yawning away in public when he got on his soapbox.
Still Reagan was shocked in 1948 when the eight-year union came to an end; broken marriages were for other people. The stressed-out Midwesterner came down with a severe case of pneumonia that nearly killed him.
As Reagan's acting career spiraled downward, his political activism increased. In “The Hagen Girl” (1947) he reluctantly became the first man on screen to kiss 20-year-old Shirley Temple.
He argued that he should end up with Shirley's schoolteacher, but the director was Reagan's age, had a teenage girlfriend and wanted to make a point. Movie patrons shouted, "Oh no!" when he and the former child star got into a clinch.
Reagan became president of the Screen Actors Guild and as his personal philosophy drifted more rightward he was threatened by the communists in Hollywood.
There were rumors that his enemies might throw acid in his face or bomb his house. He began carrying a gun for protection. Studio bosses saw him more as a labor negotiator than a viable commodity at the box office.
Things went from bad to worse when Reagan broke his leg at a charity baseball game, which cost him two movie roles and a sizeable amount of money. The frustrated actor publicly stated he could do a better job at choosing his parts than Jack Warner, who fired him after 14 years without a handshake.
Freelancing for Universal Studios, he enjoyed making “Bedtime For Bonzo” (1951), but he knew his amazing chimp co-star was stealing the show when the director, Fred De Cordova, started giving personal instructions to Bonzo instead of his trainer. Reagan's money problems became so severe in the early 1950s that he tried to eke out extra cash by selling his autographed pictures by mail to his dwindling fan base.
In 1949 a not-very-ambitious actress named Nancy Davis sought the SAG president out. She told him she was having trouble finding work because she was falsely accused of being part of a communist organization.
He investigated her background, found nothing incriminating and helped clear her name. The grateful Davis agreed to go out with him. The now-more-cautious divorcee took it slow and played the field with several Hollywood starlets.
When he woke up one morning with a girl whose name he couldn't remember, he decided it was time to marry again. He and Nancy co-starred in the disappointing, big-budget “Hellcats Of The Navy” (1957) but the new Mrs. Reagan was far more interested in her marriage than her work.
Ronald Reagan became a rich man by moving into television. Thanks to the advice of his longtime agent and manager Lew Wasserman, he became the host of the General Electric Theater (1953-1962). But small-screen success did not translate into high demand at movie houses.
In 1964, he made “The Killers,” his final film, where he played a villain for the first time. Audiences were shocked and dismayed when the nice guy they thought they knew smacked co-star Angie Dickinson in the face. Reagan found the role unpalatable.
He had an unfortunate falling out with Wasserman, and faced with a future of playing heavies, the now financially secure Reagan chose to leave his Hollywood career behind.
Ronald Reagan denied that he was a great communicator. He felt that the content of his words was more important than his style. But he never forgot his movie roots.
"Win one for the Gipper!” "May the force be with you!" "Go ahead! Make my day!" They all became his political catch phrases. And sometimes he could use film references as a source for witticisms.
Early in his first term as governor of California the now very conservative Reagan colorfully described an encounter with a hippie: "He looked like Tarzan, acted like Jane, and smelled like Cheetah!"
Reagan could take it as well as dish it out. In 1981, the new commander in chief leaned on a prominent Democrat. "We have to cut taxes, damn it! Do you know when I was in the movies I was in the 90 percent tax bracket?" "Ninety percent?” the democrat replied, “My God, Mr. President, I never thought you were that good of an actor!" The president roared with laughter.
Stephen Schochet is the author and narrator of the audio books “Fascinating Walt Disney” and “Tales of Hollywood,” gives tours of Hollywood and is the host of the syndicated “One Minute Hollywood Stories” radio feature. To find out more about his products and services go to http://www.hollwoodstories.com.
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