That Old Feeling: Where's the Best of Him?

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Our long week of national mourning is over. I leave to historians the matter of Ronald Reagan's stature among modern statesmen. Is he the man whose tough rhetoric and missile buildup defeated Soviet Communism, or a flimflam artist who talked about reducing government while actually expanding it? ("Richard Milhous Reagan," Al Franken called him on his Air America show the other day.) I also can't answer the question of why it took twice as long (six days) to bury a 93-year-old President whose death was long anticipated as it did a 46-year-old President whose death was sudden and shocking.

What is undeniable is that as a politician, Reagan was a superb performer. In the age of television, the president is essentially a talk-show host. He needs to communicate authority and intimacy, to mix seriousness with an ingratiating humor; he wants to be respected and liked. The job should never seem too big to lose a human perspective. Reagan had this in his blood; so, in a more assertive way, did Bill Clinton. It's a tone that John Kerry needs to learn in a hurry. Kerry talks with an interviewer as if he were addressing millions from the Washington Mall; Reagan chatted to the world as if it were his neighbor.

His first severe test as our talk-show President was on March 30, 1981, the date of America's first-ever showbiz assassination attempt — John Hinckley shot Reagan in a deranged bid for the attention of teen actress Jodie Foster. Reagan's immediate response showed showed his flinty ad-lib ability. As he was wheeled to the operating room he told his wife Nancy, "Sorry, honey, I forgot to duck." Then, to the surgeons surrounding him, he said bluffly, "If I'd gotten this much attention in Hollywood, I would never have left." A platoon of Warner Bros. scenarists or Johnny Carson gag writers couldn't have done better. The moment crystallized Reagan's image as a strong man who, no matter how tough the situation, never flinched, never lost his composure or humanizing sense of humor.


In the total-media age, nothing happens if it isn't on TV. Here, as elsewhere, Reagan caught a few breaks. The nation had anguished over the 14-month incarceration of American officials in Teheran. No one was killed, but minor acts of humiliation were incessantly televised (ABC's nightly broadcast, "America Held Hostage," morphed into "Nightline"), and the embarrassment helped Reagan defeat Jimmy Carter. In October 1983, the assault on a U.S. Marine base at the Beirut Airport left 241 dead (and a simultaneous attack on French soldiers killed 58 more). But this time there was no graphic footage, no breathless reporting from the scene, and thus no ignominious image to burn into the public's retinas. Not on TV; didn't happen. Reagan emerged intact, his Teflon hide unscathed.

Right or wrong, voters detected a lack of passion in Jimmy Carter, wimpiness in George Bush 41, a panic behind the cowboy bluster in Bush 43. Reagan and Clinton peddled the image of the Happy Warrior, in the tradition of 1928 Democratic nominee Al Smith. Reagan kept smiling, reassuringly; Clinton, giddily, and the smile grew bigger as Impeachment neared. His, by then, was a desperate optimism; Reagan's seemed more natural. And the operative word is "seemed." Reagan may have been born with the Irish gift of banter; he may have honed it as a young man used to being in public (as a lifeguard, a college thespian, a radio announcer). But he perfected it in his first major career: movie actor.

Reagan's politics were not mine, but I have no post-mortem bone to pick with him — a fact lost on a TIME reader who took issue with an earlier, shorter version of this piece. "I read, with interest, your 'insights' into President Reagan," wrote Victoria Schall. "Your attempt at Ellsworth Toohey journalism has failed. What a small man you must be. And YOUR passing will be a minor footnote in time." (For those of you who have neglected your Ayn Rand, Toohey was the nay-saying critic— rival to Rand's Objectivist hero, architect Howard Roark — in "The Fountainhead.") Well, that's journalism: I try to write a balanced review of Reagan's film career, and I get a challenge to my height and a wish for my anonymous death.

I'm basically a movie critic. Reagan was for decades basically a movie actor. Fortunately, most of his work is in the care of the attentive archivists and splendid showman at Turner Classic Movies, which ran a day of Reagan films last week and plans more over the summer. (See "Desperate Journey" and "Kings Row" next Thursday, the 24th.) I am grateful for TCM's help in finding ten of the performer's more obscure works. And I offer what follows, not as an attack on or defense of a political career, but simply as the fruit of a month's study of Ronald Reagan movies and some of the biographies published over the past 40 years.


Film actors often complain that their best work was left on the cutting-room floor. A subtle gesture, a quick flight into rage, that sassy line of dialogue — all these might-have-beens can keep bit-players from becoming stars, or stars becoming legends. So it may have been with Reagan. The take not used, the part not won, consigned him to a profitable but frustrating secondary status in the Hollywood hierarchy. "No, no," Jack Warner famously said when he heard the actor was running for governor of California. "Jimmy Stewart for Governor. Ronald Reagan for Best Friend."

Second lead. Second best. Best friend. Genial loser. That was Reagan throughout his 15-year tenure at Warner Bros. and in most of his films. In the 1939 "Dark Victory," he played the bon-vivant boozer who loses Bette Davis to George Brent and a brain tumor. ("He was a silly young kid," Davis recalled in 1981. "Everyone called him Little Ronnie Reagan.") In the 1940 "Santa Fe Trail," he was the young George Armstrong Custer, who loses the girl to Errol Flynn's Jeb Stuart. When Warner Bros. got around to making a whole movie lionizing Custer, "They Died With Their Boots On," Flynn was handed the part. In early 1942, Reagan was announced for a lead role, with his frequent co-star Ann Sheridan, in a film version of the play "Everyone Comes to Rick's." After the usual round of Hollywood casting roulette, Warners made the film, without Reagan or Sheridan. They called it "Casablanca."

Even in his two best-known roles he played young men who lost important things: their life, their legs. The 1940 "Knute Rockne All American" features Reagan as football hero George Gipp, who under coach Rockne (Pat O'Brien in the movie) led Notre Dame to gridiron greatness. Gipp died young, of pneumonia, but not before whispering a death-bed plea that, as polished by screenwriter Robert Buckner, became Reagan's most heralded monologue: "Rock, some day when the team is up against it, when the breaks are beatin' the boys, ask ?em to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be, but I'll know about it, and I'll be happy." Years later, at halftime during a crucial game, Rockne repeats the speech, the team rushes out to victory, "win one for the Gipper" becomes an all-time movie catch-phrase and Reagan gets a nickname that will stick to him for life.

In "Kings Row" (1942), Reagan is small-town rakehell Drake McHugh, who antagonizes a crotchety physician with his wayward attentions to the doctor's daughter. The doctor takes horrible revenge on Drake by needlessly amputating his legs after an accident. Taken to the home of his one true girl friend Randy Monaghan (Sheridan), Drake regains consciousness and suddenly realizes what has been done to him. "Randy," he cries, and his strangulated shriek rings through the house: "Where's the rest of me?" That phrase too adhered to Reagan. He used it as the title of his autobiography (written with Richard G. Hubler) published in 1965, the year before he was elected governor.


In Hollywood movies, destiny decides every romantic plot twist. In real life, success is more a matter of luck, pluck and timing. All played starring roles in Reagan's picture career. He had the luck to be signed to a film contract on his first try, at Warners in 1937, and to be cast as the lead in his debut effort, though his acting had been confined to school drama societies and his previous professional experience was announcing baseball games on the radio. Pluck — the drive to succeed, to convince others of your special talents — was apparently deficient in Reagan. "He wasn't willing to play up to people for parts he couldn't get on his own merits," said the columnist Doris Lilly, a Reagan admirer. "He was too decent to be a big star."

As for timing, consider his breakthrough performance in "Kings Row." It should have led to meatier roles, more tailored to his personality; and it did win him a raise to $5,000 a week, negotiated by his agent, Lew Wasserman, later the head of the powerful media combine MCA. But this was 1942, America was at war, and Reagan's next costume was an officer's uniform in the U.S. Army Cavalry.

For four years, he was effectively out of commercial movies — anyway, out of the star-making machinery. And after the war, though he had graduated to leading roles, Reagan was an also-ran star, a fixture of lesser movies in the melodramatic, light comedy and western genres. By the late 50s he had eased out of films, as if out of a young man's suit that no longer fit him, and into TV hosting and a corporate pitchman's role for his new boss, General Electric. Testifying in 1962 before a Los Angeles grand jury hearing into possible antitrust violations by MCA, he was asked his line of work and replied, with a joking modesty, "Actor, I think."

Like dozens of other middle-range film folk, Reagan made a good living but not an indelible impression. He didn't star in any great films, didn't pull jobs with many top directors, wasn't in movies so bad then they are guilty pleasures now. Even his later eminence couldn't turn him retroactively into a cult figure. His Hollywood career would ultimately be just one colorful chapter in the biography of the 40th President of the United States, and the only 20th century Republican except for Dwight Eisenhower to serve two full terms in the White House.

But he did devote two prime decades to the minor if alchemic art of movie acting. And film work offered some returns on his investment. It lent Reagan the status of a marketable commodity. It landed him two actress-wives: the first, Oscar-winner Jane Wyman; the second, Nancy Davis, who would be his and America's First Lady. Film acting schooled Reagan in the hortatory oratory of movie dialogue — speeches crafted to sell an ideal or an emotion, and still sound like plain-spoken common sense — techniques he used so dynamically in politics. And it created the image of a part-real, part-fictional personage: "Ronald Reagan," a collaboration of the man, the actor he became and the roles he was given to play. Where's the rest of President Reagan? A lot of it is in movies. And where's the best of Actor Reagan? Read on.


On June 1, 1937, the 26-year-old radio spieler strode into a $200-a-week contract at Warner Bros. His visible attributes: a golden smile and a long, strong frame. He moved with the coiled grace of the athlete he had been in school. As Jim Frasher, a young actor in ?40s Westerns, recalls, "It was a pleasure just to watch him walk across the Warners lot."

Reagan's most supple instrument was his voice. The Chicago Cubs play-by-play gig — in which Reagan, hundreds of miles from the action, would vamp a ballgame's drama and atmosphere from the terse, intermittent reports off a teletype — honed his ability to deliver dialogue with speed, assurance and conversational authority. Warners was a studio of fast-talking actors, but most of the men either sounded straight off the sidewalks of New York (O'Brien, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Allen Jenkins, Frank McHugh) or had acquired a well-bred British accent (the Australian Flynn, the Irish Brent). Reagan could pitch the sassy patter, but in heartland-American tones.

The young actor's deficiencies were also evident from the first. By ordinary standards, Reagan was smartly proportioned. In 1940 he was dubbed (most likely by Warners' publicity department) "the 20th century Adonis," and was pictured posing in briefs, and holding George Gipp's football aloft, for a University of Southern California sculpture class. But actors' proportions are different; they are often smallish people with large heads. The audience's attention is naturally drawn to big eyes and full lips — the repositories, in close-up, of an actor's emotion and articulation. Reagan's head was, by this standard, small. On screen, in the broad-shouldered jackets he had to wear, he could look all suit, no face.

And what about that face? Start at the top. He had a thick mane of dark hair, usually slicked back but at times becomingly tousled. (His hair sometimes out-acted him.) But his eyes were narrow, his lips thin. And he didn't know what to do with what he had. Once an actor is told he has a seductive smile, he usually learns how to flash it. Decade after decade, moviegoers saw the Cary Grant grin, Gable's dimpled look of indulgent exasperation, Flynn radiating an irrepressible pleasure in being Flynn. Audiences saw these men baring their teeth and instantly surrendered. Reagan possessed an appealing smile, but didn't use it enough. As critic Mitch Tuchman astutely noted: "Reagan's own repertoire of facial expressions was limited to an all-purpose, high-flung left eyebrow and tartly pursed lips. Later, when his attractive young face aged, these expressions were left behind, indelibly etched."

Most of the first generation of talking-picture stars had come from Broadway, where they honed their comedic and dramatic skills, or from vaudeville, where comedy and music were the specialties. A few others, like Bing Crosby, had been recording stars. Reagan couldn't sing or dance; he had no reputation for serious drama; he didn't do stand-up. So what was he? A decent-looking guy in search of a personality, and the right films to showcase it — films that would tell an audience, Watch me.

Problem was, Reagan lacked the true performer's love of being minutely scrutinized. Bluffly outgoing, infallibly at ease in large groups, he seemed inhibited by screen intimacy. Macho actors, from Clark Gable on, have spoken of their difficulty in accommodating themselves to the essentially feminine nature of film acting: the makeup sessions, costume fittings, the miming of tender feelings, whispered endearments amplified for all the world to hear. Film, the writer John Berger has noted, is the process of a man looking at a woman — the masculine camera focused on the object of its allure, whether male or female. Even the manliest actor had to endure, and pretend to love, the pampering before he gets on camera and the requirement that he sit or stand there, as an object of veneration, for the audience.

That just wasn't in Reagan's makeup. He often looked uncomfortable being looked at, which is a bit of a handicap in the line of work he chose. The men he played were as likely to hug the girl as kiss her, which could be the fault of the casting director, but also played to his insecurity about intimacy. (In his political career, he was said to be more persuasive in small or large groups than one-on-one.) He had trouble sustaining an emotion in close-up, as if he couldn't wait for someone, anyone, to yell Cut! You can almost read fear on Reagan's face. Only his eyebrow was cocky.


I'm being descriptive here, not proscriptive. It shouldn't surprise that Reagan seemed initially ill at ease before the camera, since his curriculum vitae was virtually unique in Hollywood. (If any other prominent actor came straight from sports announcing, I haven't heard about it.) But Warners saw something in this near-handsome fellow. Not only did they put him right to work in a B picture — "Love Is On the Air," which opened four months and a day after he walked on the lot —, they gave him the starring role. And they custom-made it to his talents. Reagan plays crusading radio commentator Andy McCaine, who gets in trouble with the local politicos and is briefly switched to hosting a kiddie show, where he must read bedtime stories and announce boxing matches and bicycle races. Since much of the film is devoted to Andy's broadcasts, Reagan didn't even have to memorize his dialogue: he got to declaim a lot of it while reading the script.

For a few years Reagan shuttled between supporting roles in A-level films and starring parts in Bs. He was a radio announcer, again, in "Boy Meets Girl" — a bit part but a good one, letting him display a frantic aplomb as chaos erupts at a movie premiere and he tries both to describe it and to rein it in. Then he headlined "Sergeant Murphy," brought in by serial director B. Reeves Eason at a svelte 57 mins. In the year of Seabiscuit's triumph, Reagan plays a young Army man who follows his favorite horse from one branch of the service to another, one country to another, eventually riding Sgt. Murphy to victory in Britain's Grand National Steeplechase. (Headline: Six-foot Jockey Wins Horse Race!) Our hero has a nominal girlfriend in Mary Maguire, but his true obsession is equine. "I love that horse more than anything in all the world," Reagan says fervently. It's one of his most convincing movie declarations.

Time and again, Reagan would recede while others shone. In the programmer "Girls on Probation" he has the voice and posture of authority as an assistant D.A., but Sheila Bromley — a Bette Davis type, but jazzier, who subsequently went nowhere in pictures — steals the show as the bad girl who gets star Jane Bryan in trouble. "Brother Rat," set in the Virginia Military Institute, handed him the thankless job of the one sensible cadet in a bunch of college cut-ups with ethical standards so lax (one of the boys bets against his own football team), it's amazing that V.M.I. gave the project its blessing. Eddie Albert, who came to Hollywood after appearing in the original Broadway "Brother Rat," got the attention in the movie version. Two years later, Reagan was supporting Albert in another Broadway adaptation, "An Angel from Texas." For years, he was marching in place while newer faces moved ahead.

"Brother Rat" offered Reagan one perk: for the first time, he shared screen time with Wyman, who as the campus Colonel's brainy daughter (she wears glasses) was cute and pert and already aware of how to charm the camera. At the end of one scene she sticks her head back into frame, semaphores a smile that suggests both primness and mischief, and chirps, "Papa won't like it." Jane and Ron made four films together in two years, but were a bigger item off-screen. They married in 1940. (His proposal, as reported in the fan magazines: "What are you doing for the next 50 years?") Nearly a half-century later, Nancy Reagan told Edmund Morris, the President's authorized biographer, that Wyman had convinced her reluctant beau to say, "I do," by threatening to commit suicide! One of these women was desperate: either Wife No.1, for employing emotional blackmail, or Wife No.2, for inventing such a malicious story.


Warners, a six-day-a-week studio, liked to keep its actors busy. Reagan made 33 films in his first five years, or an average of one every eight weeks. When he wasn't serving as squire to the rowdy Dead End Kids (in "Angels Wash Their Faces" and "Hell's Kitchen," both 1939, both pairing him with Sheridan), he was getting loaned out to make films at other studios. In one of these working vacations, the youngster got upstaged by a wily veteran. Wallace Beery, in "The Bad Man" (1941), took him to school in a shot that was meant to favor Reagan, until Beery played an old ham's trick of maneuvering himself in front of the camera. The kid quickly surrendered. As he artlessly put it, "Like the old adage about forced romance: when it's inevitable relax and enjoy it." (New York City TV weatherman Tex Antoine once got fired for saying that.)

Some of his most confident and efficient work was in a quartet of Bs made in 1939 and detailing the heroics of Brass Bancroft, Secret Service Agent. In the opener, "Secret Service of the Air," he's out to foil an airborne smuggling racket. (The cargo is aliens; during one flight the pilot opens a trap door and, zip!, the aliens plunge to their death.) Reagan's shining moment is a barroom fight where he executes a smooth backflip onto and over a table. "Murder in the Air" earned some retrospective camp luster with its secret weapon, the Inertia Protector, which is able to destroy hostile bombs aimed at America. Sound familiar? It's a primitive forerunner of President Reagan's Star Wars plan.

A third Brass Bancroft epic, "Code of the Secret Service," runs all manner of tepid variations on familiar themes. In a nod to Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps," Brass is an innocent man, wanted for murder, is handcuffed to a suspicious pretty girl. He also has his life spared when a Spanish-language primer (the secular equivalent of a Bible) in his breast pocket stops a bullet heading for his heart. In between this festival of cliches, Reagan (or his stunt double) dives off a high bridge, scampers up and down mountains, gets in lots of fights and does what he liked best: riding horses.

In his autobiography, Reagan dismissed the Bancroft films with cheerful contempt; of "Code of the Secret Service" he cracked, "Never has an egg of such dimensions been laid." Well, these unpretentious programmers, terrestrial siblings to the Buck Rogers serials, showed how to slim an action movie down to an hour's running time: lose the love interest. These breezy Bs might not have been film literature, but they were the equivalent of expert speed typing. In them Reagan proved himself engaging, snappy, in command. When he figured no one was looking, he could be well worth watching. In the bigger spotlight of the A pictures he often shrank.

He still had to prove himself in A material, and just before the war he got a few chances. In the fluffy 1940 comedy "Million Dollar Baby," he's Peter Rowan, a rebellious composer who say he's "got a sour disposition and a mouth to match" — an Oscar Levant type as the romantic lead. His soon-to-be-millionaire girlfriend Priscilla Lane calls Peter "an anarchist"; he insists he's "just a student of history. Civilization's rotting away." (Back then, he didn't mean the Soviet Union.) Reagan is pretty compelling as a fellow spoiling for a fight with the world, and gives a poignancy to his big speech: "The things I wanted most couldn't be bought with dough... things like making your own way, climbing your own mountain or stubbing your own toe." He's billed below nice guy Jeffrey Lynn, but it's Reagan who, for once, gets the girl. And for once, he's earned her.


"Million Dollar Baby" displayed a tense defiance in Reagan, an untamed sexiness that he used again in the strangest place: Notre Dame. His Gipp is remembered for the deathbed peroration. But it's in his early scenes that he hints at the sort of screen personality he could have become, if Jack Warner hadn't insisted he keep playing the boy next door to the male lead. No wonder Reagan lobbied not just for the Gipp role, but for the Rockne project to be filmed. He knew it could be a career-maker.

Gipp has no interest in joining Rockne's rookies; baseball's his game. But when Rock sees him kick a football over the grandstand, he asks Gipp to try out for the team. "All right, if you insist," Reagan almost snarls. When Rock tells him, "They'll give you the ball. Just run with it," Gipp asks, "How far?" Of course he eludes all tackles and runs for a touchdown. "I guess the boys are just tired," he tells Rockne, who never calls Gipp on his cool sarcasm; throughout, teacher and student crack wise with each other like two newspapermen in a screwball comedy. Reagan's casual, almost flirtatious insolence is instantly attractive, and very modern for a 1940 rah-rah epic. Though Gipp consumes only a reel or so of screen time, his ghost lingers till the end of the film, and beyond.

Reagan is just as brash, if more naive, in "Kings Row," one of those naughty novels that Hollywood did handsprings to sanitize. It touches, daintily, on all manner of small-town foibles: sexually possessive fathers, insane children, vindictive doctors, the hatred of the rich for the poor — and a hint of homosexuality. Where's that? In the relationship of Drake and his friend Parris (Robert Cummings). Drake is earthy, Parris moony; Drake rough-and-tumble, Parris soft; Drake is full of homilies, Parris quotes romantic poetry; in short, Drake is the guy, Parris the girl. They gaze ardently into each other's eyes, confide dark secrets, embrace by rubbing cheek to cheek. When Drake learns his legs have been amputated, he shrinks into the bedroom shadows and whispers the name that means most to him: "Parris."

Under Sam Wood's direction, Reagan flawlessly navigates Drake's descent from rube bonhomie to maturing resolve to blackest despair, then up to a final splash of sunlight. He parlayed the role into a strong lead in "Juke Girl," a brisker "Grapes of Wrath" (with tomatoes) that cast him as an anglo Cesar Chavez, fighting Florida's corrupt agri-bosses, and paired him again with the wonderfully sultry, sensible Sheridan. The picture had a lot going for it — ripe dialogue, breathless pacing, a lynch mob and a little sex — but it in Reagan's mind it couldn't top "Kings Row." For decades he considered the film his greatest accomplishment and never tired of screening it. In 1948, Wyman sued for divorce, charging extreme mental cruelty. Some thought she was fed up with her husband's union politicking as President of the Screen Actors Guild. But Wyman told friends of another complaint: "I just couldn't stand to watch that dismal ?Kings Row' one more time."

Jack Warner had one more role for his budding star — an RAF pilot in "Desperate Journey," again supporting Flynn — before Uncle Sam cast him as a stateside warrior. A natural leader, if not a natural actor, Reagan was throughout his film career cast as a government enforcer (not just the Brass Bancroft series but assistant district attorneys in "Girls on Probation" and "Angels Wash Their Faces") and even more often as a soldier (an Army private in "Sergeant Murphy," a cadet in "Brother Rat," Custer in "Santa Fe Trail," a Cavalry officer in "The Last Outpost," an undercover Army agent in "Cattle Queen of Montana," a submarine commander in "Hellcats of the Navy"). As Stephen Vaughn observes in "Ronald Reagan in Hollywood: Movies and Politics," "No 20th-century president, with the exception of Dwight D. Eisenhower, had been seen in uniform by more people."

Capt. Reagan, kept out of action because of poor vision, never saw hostile fire. Indeed, since he was assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit (jocularly acronymed as FUMPOO) at the old Hal Roach studios, making propaganda films for the armed forces, he could usually bunk at home. And his only act of insurrection was a put-up job. The brass in Washington wanted to see some of those amusing outtakes from the Fort Roach one-reelers. Alas, footage was so scarce, nobody printed the unused shots. So the unit produced a fake-blooper reel, full of blown lines and cuss words, all scripted. As actor Reagan gives a lecture, the map behind him "accidentally" snaps up, and much sham jollity ensues. They also serve who narrate documentaries.


Many stars, Gable and Stewart among them, returned from war to reclaim their eminence. Reagan was not of their wattage, and though his salary was now $169,750, again he had a loser's luck. Bogart got the haunted-hero roles at Warners; Reagan got the scraps, like the part of a suicidal epileptic and skeptic — "I'm a self-determined not-knower," he says — in the 1947 "Night Unto Night." But he was more comfortable in a football player's or a Lieutenant's uniform than in the shroud of doom this movie dresses him in. At the end he goes to kill himself but is talked out of it by Viveca Lindfors, a lovely, intense Swedish actress imported as the new Garbo or Ingrid Bergman. In these final scenes Reagan has not a word of dialogue and hardly any close-ups. The director, Don Siegel, was in love with Lindfors (they soon married), and let her shine while keeping Reagan literally in the dark.

By the time of her divorce from Reagan, Wyman was eclipsing his star; she won an Oscar for her role as a deaf-mute in "Johnny Belinda." But Reagan was frequently paired with actresses who outshone him. In the late ?40s, Warners was promoting the honey-voiced Patricia Neal, who played Reagan's love interest "John Loves Mary" and the made-in-Britain "The Hasty Heart." Neal's big film was Warners' adaptation of "The Fountainhead." Reagan might have pined for the Howard Roark role — stalwart individualist, brilliant architect, demon lover — and if he had been a bigger star, he might have been cast in the part. Instead, it went to outsider Gary Cooper, who during the shoot began a longtime liaison with Neal. In 1968, the actress pulled a premature Baldwin when she said, "I don't like Ronald Reagan. If he runs for President or Vice President, I will give up my American citizenship. I really will." (There's no evidence she ever did.)

Actors' careers can have unpredictable trajectories. Dick Powell was a Warners crooner throughout the ?30s; then he dropped his voice an octave, didn't shave for a few days and became a tough-guy gumshoe in "Murder My Sweet." There's the luck of physiognomy too: Bogart's steely eyes and numb upper lip consigned him to gangster parts for almost a decade, until somebody saw the haunted look behind them. Presto! In 1941, with "High Sierra" and "The Maltese Falcon," Bogie was an existential star. But Reagan's screen personality didn't harden or mellow or mature; it just aged. And after a decade, Warners still hadn't decided what kind of film best suited him.

Melodrama? Let him play a small-town D.A. in the 1950 "Storm Warning," an anti-Klan movie with another lynch-mob scene and a "Streetcar Named Desire" plot: a woman comes to a Southern town stay with her nice sister and a brutish, T-shirted husband. It was one of those political movies of the period that could be taken as liberal (the heroine, Ginger Ringers, is urged to testify against the Klan) or conservative (she could implicitly be testifying against Communists). Reagan is fine representing the quiet voice of authority, but it's the other principals who get to do the heavy emoting.

Comedy? Put him in "The Girl from Jones Beach" (1949), where he's a photographer who has assembled the perfect pinup from the comeliest body parts of 12 models. This blandly sexist romp (he falls for pretty Virginia Mayo, who's disappointed that he seems to love her for her mind) does boast a certain equality of leering. In the climactic courtroom scene, Mayo wears a bathing suit; then Reagan is shown in swim trunks, a flashback to his lifeguard days. His big hit of the ?50s was the silly "Bedtime for Bonzo," a parable of cross-species adoption (Reagan and Diana Lynn try raising a chimp as a human child) in which the star spent much of his time with an animal perched in his lap or on his head. Though it gave his detractors much excuse for merriment, Reagan proclaimed himself proud of the film.

How about Westerns? Virtually every male lead in the ?50s made them; they particularly suited Reagan, who loved horses and often insisted on doing his own stunt-riding. He ornamented such unexceptional oaters as "The Last Outpost," "Tennessee's Partner" and "Cattle Queen of Montana"; in this film he does some moderately fancy pistol-twirlin' and shoots a gun out of cowgal Barbara Stanwyck's hand. The money was decent, and it kept him outdoors, where he could show that physical grace Jim Frasher had noticed on the Warner lot. By now Reagan was essentially a freelance; in the late ?40s Wasserman had worked out a contract that allowed the actor to alternate films at his old home with others at Universal. And by the early ?50s he was a free man.


His other signal movie of the decade was "Hellcats of the Navy." It's famous as the one film to co-star Reagan his bride, Nancy Davis. That pairing was less than monumental; Davis's role is small and she doesn't distinguish herself in it. You see in it why Nancy Davis was not a movie star: her features too severe even for the coddling camera, her voice too high for the maturity her looks suggested. But Reagan is impressive as a World War II naval hero with a hint of Bogart's Captain Queeg in "The Caine Mutiny." In the attempt to discover Japanese sea lanes, Submarine Commander Casey Abbott makes a decision that kills 60 of his men. He is both firm in his belief that he did the greater good for the greater number and flooded with remorse for sending sailors he knew to an early death. The movie is unusual, and mature, in dramatizing the burdens of power. Reagan's face seems graven, his body made ponderous by his executive authority — an impression he rarely gave as a seemingly blithe, untroubled President.

His last film (really a TV movie released in theaters because it was deemed too rough for the small screen) was "The Killers." It's a bit of a cheap thrill to watch Reagan play a crime heavy, the liberal notion of a corrupt businessman who sums up his ethical code by saying, "I approve of larceny, homicide is against my principles." His character progresses from running a small hijacking gang to becoming a Southern California real-estate magnate. "Would you like to take a look at my books?" he asks professional assassin Lee Marvin, who replies laconically, "Which set?"

Reagan, whose character kills two men, then gets plugged in the gut and dies, also has a scene where he has to bitch-slap Angie Dickinson. Most actors would consider such a role as a gift — purring rotters like this are great excuses for hamming it up — but Reagan gives no evidence of pleasure. This was 1964, the year he delivered the Republican National Convention nominating speech for Barry Goldwater that instantly defined for the party a powerful, electable conservatism, and the man who could carry it to the White House. Reagan may have been looking ahead to the 1966 gubernatorial campaign and cringing a little at the blot this villainous farewell role would put on his resume. But he rarely threw himself into cruder roles. As Richard Schickel cannily wrote: "He does not exhibit the born actor's relish at playing a heel. Instead, he exhibits the born public figure's discomfort at being mistaken for one,"

"The Killers," violent and cynical, was a curious coda to Reagan's career. He probably took the role as a favor to Wasserman, who was then launching MCA's Saturday Night at the Movies series of feature-length TV films. But, in a way, he had only been moonlighting as a movie actor ever since he got out of the Army. He was moving into politics, graduating from Hollywood in the ?40s to Sacramento in the ?60s to Washington in the ?80s.


Reagan had served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1947 to 1952. He negotiated the first contract that gave actors royalties for films but not for television work — a boon for Wasserman, who would run the largest TV production company. (Elected for another term in 1959, he shepherded another contract, this time winning TV royalties.) Reagan's friendship with Wasserman, and MCA's connection with the notorious organized crime lawyer Sidney Korshak, spurred several investigations, including a 1962 case by the L.A. District Attorney's office and a 1987 book by Dan Muldea, "Reagan, MCA and the Mob." But the argument has never been made clearly (or simply) enough for me to see a direct and venal line from the Mafia to the future President.

In his first tenure as SAG president, Reagan had also applied grease to the wheels of the anti-Communist caravan. The actor had been reflexively left-wing in the ?30s and ?40s. Edmund Morris believes the story that Reagan had tried to join the Communist Party but was rejected on the grounds he'd be more valuable as a sympathetic outsider. In 1987, Reagan unblinkingly denied this rumor to Morris; the biographer was amazed by the President's acting ability.) By the early ?50s, though, Reagan had turned firmly and forever to the right.

His SAG work had also earned him admiring glances from political king-makers. (A ?50s friend of the Reagans noted they were always the least-moneyed people in a room full of rich plutocrats.) Asked whether he wanted to be Senator, he replied, "I'm a happy man just the way things are. And I believe in letting well enough alone." But his work as a pitchman — as the host of TV's "General Electric Theatre" and "Death Valley Days" — gave him further confidence to move into executive roles: as governor and president.

He was a TV actor before there was TV drama. Traditionally, a movie star radiates danger, threat, mystery, the lure of the unknown, the capacity to change by the final reel. A TV star promises comfort, familiarity, manners so pleasing that America will invite him back into their living rooms every week. Reagan had this domesticated appeal — bred in him, perhaps, but also hammered into him by all those roles where he essentially played the sensible master of ceremonies, the figure of static poise surrounded by a swirl of comedy or melodrama. The other performers — more gifted, eccentric or committed, or simply less inhibited about showing off — got to play crazy, sneer their malevolence. In other words, they got to act, while he stalwartly stood by as the audience surrogate. It was this steadiness that made Reagan a welcome, authoritative TV figure. Combined with a voice that suggested unforced manliness and homespun wisdom, it made him a superb politician.

"Some day," says Drake McHugh in "Kings Row," "I'm gonna surprise some of the people in this town." Reagan did that to a Hollywood hierarchy that would have dismissed him at the beginning, middle or end of his movie career. He tipped Jack Warner's prophesy on its end, persuading most Americans that they were being governed by their best friend. So it's Jimmy Stewart who was the great actor. Was Ronald Reagan a great President? No, but he brilliantly played one on TV. And where's the best of him? In the easy authority he projected — the image of an American hero he rarely got to play in the movies.