In 1937, 26-year-old Chicago Cubs radio announcer Ronald Reagan had the acting bug rekindled in him. The former Dixon, Illinois 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 went with them to get away from the Iowa cold and pursue his movie star dream. Through a friend he got a screen test at Warner Bros .; the 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 worked at the Warner's 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", Ron 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 later that same day when Warners made an offer to put him under contract at $ 200.00 a week, and hastily agreed before they changed their mind.
In typical Hollywood fashion the former radio announcer was cast as a radio announcer. It seemed like every film his big line was "Get me the City desk! I have a story that will break this town wide open!" Ronald, a former lifeguard and kept detailed records of all the lives he saved, preferred playing heroes to the drunken socialite he depicted along side Bette Davis in Dark Victory (1939) even if he was be in mostly b-movies. He learned quickly that Hollywood could be a cutthroat place. He dated some of his leading ladies who fell out of love after their movie was over. He worked with insecure stars like Errol Flynn, who demanded that the one-inch shorter Reagan not stand next to him on camera. And there were tough Directors like the Hungarian born Michael Curtiz, with what he made Santa Fe Trail (1940). In one scene the young actor watched in amusement 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 he suggested to his bosses that they buy the story of the legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne and Reagan could play the role of the tragic halfback George Gipp. Warner Bros. liked the first idea more than the second: he was told he was too small. Reagan produced a photograph of himself playing college football; he was actually bigger than Gipp. He got the part but Knee Rockne All American (1940) was not all fun and games. One day Reagan showed up to shoot the scene where Gipp ran the ball eighty yards for a touchdown. He was told he was not needed. They would film something else instead. He proceeded to eat a huge and unhealthy breakfast. Then he was informed that they were going to film the run after all. After the third eighty-yard take Reagan dashed far past the goal line where he privately lost his meal.
Reagan was a political animal right away, driving his Hollywood co-workers to distraction with his praise of the policies of Franklin Roosevelt. It was mostly just talk; he rejected any suggestion that he might someday go into politics. One time he was yammering about about the necessity of government aid when a friend suggested he run for President. "You do not like my acting either!" He wailed.
Ronald Reagan's Star rose with King's Row (1942) where he had a dramatic performance in which his legs were amputated and he screamed out, "Where's the rest of me?" King's Row cave his agent Lew Wasserman the leverage to negotiate a solid movie star salary for him. But his acting opportunities slowed because of military service during World War II. Although his terrible vision kept him from seeing combat (he was told that if he was sent overseas he would accidently shoot an American General and probably miss him) the short propaganda films he appeared in (for which he received military, not movie star pay) did little to help his career. He worked in propaganda films like the Irving Berlin musical This Is The Army (1943) where he received only his military pay. He overheard young women, who worked at his army base, swooning over newer, younger stars and when the war ended Reagan felt insecure and past his prime.
He met Jane Wyman on the set of Brother Rat (1938). She was attracted to him right away but surprised if his niceness was just an act. She convinced herself he was the real deal when she saw he was just as kind to waiters as he was to big shots at the studio. But after the war her career moved ahead of his with her Academy Award winning performance as a deaf mute in Johnny Belinda (1948). There was gossip about her having had a love affair with her co-star Lew Ayres. And his constant harping on politics drove Jane Wyman crazy; sometimes she would yawn away in public when he got on his soapbox. Still with all that Reagan was shocked when they divorced, that was something that happened to other people. During that time the stressed out Midwesterner came down with a severe case of pneumonia that nearly killed him.
Ronald Reagan became frustrated with both his career and his personal life. In The Hagen Girl (1947) he reluctantly became the first man to kiss twenty-year-old Shirley Temple on screen. He argued that he was that he should end up with Shirley's schoolteacher, but the Director was Reagan's age, had a teenage girl and wanted to make a point. Movie patrons shouted, "Oh no!" when he and Shirley got into a clinch. He became President of the Screen Actors Guild and as his politics drifted more to the right threats came from Communists in Hollywood. Perhaps they would throw acid in his face or his bomb his house. He began carrying a gun for protection. Movie bosses saw Reagan more as a labor negotiator than a viable Movie Star. He broke his leg at a charity baseball game, which cost him two movie roles and a sizable amount of money. He publicly stated he could do a better job choosing his roles than Jack Warner, who fired him after fourteen years without a handshake. He enjoyed making Bedtime For Bonzo (1951) at Universal 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 eek out extra cash by selling his autographs through the mail.
After Ron became the President of the Screen Actors Guild in 1949, he met Nancy Davis a not very ambitious actress who needed her name cleared from being linked to a Communist group. They hit it off immediately, but he took it slow and dated several actions in Hollywood. When he woke up one morning with a girl whose name he could not 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 family than acting and unlike his first wife never threatened his ego.
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 General Electric Theater (1953-1962). But success in TV did not translate into high demand at the box office. The movie offers became fewer. In 1964 he made a film called The Killers where he played a villain for the first time. Audiences were shocked when the nice guy they thought they knew smacked co-star Angie Dickinson in the face. Reagan found the role unpalatable. He had a falling out with Wasserman who felt he was a whining has-been. Faced with a future of similar type roles made it easier for him to go into politics full time.
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 you!" "Go ahead! Make my day!" They all became political sound bytes for him. 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 described an encounter with a hippie. "He looked like Tarzan, acted like Jane and smelled like Cheetah!" But Reagan had to take it as well as dish it out. Once as President he 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% tax bracket." "Ninety percent? My God, Mr. President, I did not think you were that good of an actor!" The President roared with laughter.