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By Scott D. O'Reilly

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1950s Ronald Reagan PostcardNo actor has played upon the world's stage quite the way Ronald Reagan did.  Born Feb 6th 1911 in Tampico Illinois, Ronald Wilson Reagan began his career as a hardworking supporting player and occasional leading man on the silver screen before taking on the biggest role of his life as the 40th President of the United States.  But whether he was standing tall against the bad guys in B films or standing up to the Soviets, Reagan exuded a resolute confidence, an infectious optimism, and a sheer affability that, more often than not, won over fans, critics, and political opponents alike.

Much of Ronald Reagan's life could have been lifted from a Hollywood script.  Reagan rose from rather humble beginnings, becoming something of an advertisement for self-improvement and personal responsibility.  His Horatio Alger mindset may have sprung, at least in part, from growing up in a household with an alcoholic father.  Throughout his life Reagan remained a virtual teetotaler, sipping wine only as the occasion required at State Dinners after he became president.

Even as a youth Reagan seemed to epitomize the all-American ideal.  He was a dedicated lifeguard, and the number of swimmers he reportedly saved is something of a legend.  He attended Eureka College, and after graduation began his entertainment career in the broadcast booth as a sports announcer.  But Reagan was meant for more than radio.  Broad shouldered, ruggedly handsome, and 6' 1" tall Reagan seemed tailor made to play heroes and leading men on the big screen.  His wholesome, boy next-door looks, however, may have worked against him, as he would soon be pegged as the hero's 'sidekick.'

Reagan's first film roles were largely bit parts, including many several as a radio announcer (his real life experience made him a natural).  The best of these films was "The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse" starring Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and Claire Trevor.  Only Reagan's voice 'appeared' in the film, and his part was unbilled, but it would help him land in another film with Bogart, "Dark Victory."

1939's "Dark Victory" was a tour de force tailor made for Bette Davis, but it featured an A-list cast including Bogart and George Brent.  Ironically, Reagan was chosen to play a drunken partygoer, a part managed to pull off quite convincingly, despite the fact Reagan was a confirmed non-drinker.  "Dark Victory" was huge artistic and commercial triumph, and its success seemed to rub off on all concerned.  As a result Reagan landed roles in films with the very popular Dead End Kids including, "Hell's Kitchen" and "Angels Wash Their Faces," the latter starring Ann Sheridan.  But Reagan's first big role came in 1940's "Knute Rockne All American."  The title part of the legendary Notre Dame coach was the role of a lifetime for veteran character actor Pat O'Brien.  But Reagan was memorable as the mortally stricken George Gipp who asks his teammates to "win one for the Gipper," a line Reagan would later use to great effect in his political campaigns (the part of George Gipp had became so associated with Reagan that his nickname became "The Gipper.")

The next decade would bring Reagan his greatest Hollywood successes.  He was frequently teamed with the leading adventure star of the 40's, Errol Flynn, playing the hero's best friend and romantic rival.  Flynn ended up winning the hearts of his leading ladies, but Reagan became a fixture in the mind of the movie going public with his likable screen persona and stalwart loyalty.  Perhaps Reagan's best adventure film from his 1947 Ronald Reagan Turf Cigarettes Tobacco Card1950's Ronald Reagan Paper Premiumpairing with Flynn is Michael Curtiz's "Desperate Journey," a seat of your pants action film that has Flynn and Reagan, along with Alan Hale Sr. and Arthur Kennedy outwitting the Gestapo led by the venerable heavy Raymond Massey.  Curtiz, who directed such classics as "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Captain Blood," and "Casablanca," pulled out all the stops in "Desperate Journey," and the result is one of the most fast-paced, exciting, WW II adventure yarns ever made.  Reagan, by the way, was briefly consider for the part of Rick in Curtiz's "Casablanca," a role eventually landed by Humphrey Bogart, an indication that the future president was near the top of his profession at this point.

Reagan was enjoying his most successful period commercially, but in 1942's "King's Row" he showed he could really act.  An ambitious and unusual film - it shows a darker side of American life and human nature - Reagan more than held his own in a cast that included such screen luminaries as Ann Sheridan, Claude Rains, Charles Coburn, and Robert Cummings.  Reagan plays a young man who has his legs unnecessarily amputated by a sadistic doctor after a serious accident.  The film is both powerful and harrowing, and no one who has seen it will forget Reagan's scene where he exclaims, "Where's the rest of me?"  The phrase, incidentally, that became the title of Reagan's autobiography some years later.

WW II was raging by now, and Reagan served in the Army Air Corp as a Captain.  Poor eyesight kept him out of combat duty (Reagan wore contacts), but he was very active, and he narrated or appeared in numerous training films and shorts intended to boost morale.  One of his most popular feature films, "This is the Army," was also made during this period.  An unabashed flag waving celebration of American patriotism  -- and the music of Irvin Berlin - the film teamed Reagan with the renowned hoofer George Murphy, and a cast of thousands in the show stopping musical revue that closes the film.

Reagan continued playing military men long after the war ended, including a character known as 'Yank' in the well received "The Hasty Heart." By the 1950's Reagan star power began to lose some of its luster.  When appeared in "Bedtime for Bonzo," a genial comedy, his co-star was a chimp that arguably stole the show.  Reagan also appeared in the camp classic "Hellcats of the Navy" opposite his future wife Nancy Davis.  By this time Reagan still possessed charisma, but his matinee idol looks were fading.  His final film was the 1964 version of "The Killers" based on an Ernest Hemingway short story.  A remake of the earlier 1946 version starring Burt Lancaster, the film gave Reagan his one and only chance to play a villain.  His performance and the film generally impressed critics, but Reagan had decided to move on to new opportunities in television, also serving as the president of The Screen Actors Guild.  In moving from the big screen to the small screen Reagan reached an even wider audience as a spokesman for General Electric, introducing the popular General Electric Theatre program.

In 1966 Reagan took on a new role with his election as the governor of California.  It was only a hint of things to come.  In 1980 Reagan defeated the incumbent Jimmy Carter to become the 40th President of the United States.  He is generally credited with renewing America's spirit of optimism after a period of national malaise, and with overseeing a peaceful end to the Cold War.  He also survived an assassination attempt in 1981.  In 2004 Americans joined in celebrating Ronald Wilson Reagan's 93rd birthday.  Sadly, Alzheimer's disease has robbed the former president of the spark that endeared him to generations of Americans.  His legacy includes more than sixty feature films.  But his greatest accomplishment is almost certainly his part in bringing the Cold War and the arms race with the former Soviet Union to a peaceful end.  And for an actor who always liked to wear the white hat, this final role was the one a lifetime.
Scott D. O'Reilly is an independent writer with degrees in philosophy and psychology.  His work has been published in The Humanist, Philosophy Now, Intervention Magazine, Think, and The Philosopher's Magazine. He is a contributor to the book The Great Thinkers A-Z (Continium, 2004) and is working on Deconstructing Demagogues, a book which examines how politicians use and misuse language.  Contact:( Read about classic film stars every month in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

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A Tribute to Ronald Reagan The Great Communicator is gone, at the age of 93. He was President of the U.S. and Governor of California, but classic movie fans remember him as the star of films like Brother Rat and Bedtime for Bonzo.