Reagan's Hollywood Career Overshadowed by Political Legacy – Part 1

After a heated exchanged opened the 1985 Geneva Summit, Ronald Reagan suggested to Mikhail Gorbachev that the two leaders take a break and walk together along a nearby lake. Even in this informal setting, Reagan’s unyielding support for the SDI initiative remained a major sticking point. But the conversation assumed a more congenial tone when Gorbachev began to ask Reagan about his movie career.

While it may be difficult to pinpoint a precise moment when Cold War tensions began to ease, it is evident that Gorbachev’s interest in Hollywood helped foster a human connection that advanced negotiations and solidified relations.

Ronald Reagan ActorBy all accounts, Reagan was proud of his Hollywood career, which began on April 20, 1937 the day he signed a contract with Warner Brothers. While political opponents and hostile media personalities have made a sport out of demeaning Reagan’s acting ability, he was actually quite accomplished in his own right and cultivated a strong following.

A good source here is Marc Eliot who authored “Reagan: The Hollywood Years,” a well-researched, highly readable yarn that highlights some of the former president’s best performances on screen and on television. He co-starred alongside some of most talented stars of his era including Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Ginger Rogers, Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn.

While Reagan may not have achieved lasting fame as a leading man, he did carve out a strong niche as a supporting actor in films that attracted critical attention, as Eliot explained in an interview with Reason TV. He was widely viewed as the reliable “best friend” standing behind

the big names of that time, Eliot notes.

Reagan was very mindful of how supporting roles could enhance and amplify the storyline behind each film. This was most certainly the case in “Knute Rockne, All American” where Reagan played the part of Notre Dame Football great George Gipp.

“Now the Gipper only occupied one reel of the picture, but from an actor’s point of view it was a near perfect part,” Reagan once observed. “A great entrance, action in the middle and a deathbed scene in the grand tradition of Hollywood.”

The phrase “Go out and win one for the Gipper” later figured into Reagan’s political campaigns and is at least partly responsible for the film’s lasting appeal. But there are other noteworthy supporting roles that continue to get overlooked by historians and biographers.

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This would include “Dark Victory” (1939) co-starring Davis, Geraldine Fitzgerald, George Brent and Bogart. Here, Reagan was cast as an aloof, but likeable playboy named Alec Hamm who adds levity and cheer to a film that is heavy on drama. The Davis character is a terminally ill woman who decides to live out her few remaining months to the fullest. Reagan does not get the girl; she instead gravitates over to the Bogart character.

Davis was nominated for Best Actress and the film for Best Picture. Even as the top prizes ultimately went to “Gone with the Wind,” “Dark Victory” was widely recognized as a critical success. Reagan’s ability to connect with audiences and co-stars did not go unrecognized as he proceeded to land high profile roles.

Off screen, Bogart and Reagan developed a lasting friendship. They were ardent patriots who became interested in the political scene.

This is where Hollywood and Cold War politics come full circle. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Reagan and Bogart were both “committed liberals” susceptible to communist operatives, Paul Kengor, a political scientist and author, said in an interview.

Humphrey Bogart

Reagan was recruited for the speaking circuit by the “benignly named” American Veterans Committee (AVC), but came to see in his own words that he was “being steered more than a little bit” by a group with its own agenda. The AVC events included “hand-picked audiences and highly skewed speaking material, Kengor said.

In retrospect, Gorbachev’s interest in Reagan’s films is more than a little ironic; it was the Hollywood experience that first opened Reagan’s eyes to the dangers of communism. Reagan eventually came to see that AVC was a front group for the communist cause as was another “innocent-sounding” organization called the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions (HICCASP).

By 1946, Reagan was a popular after-dinner speaker in Hollywood circles who intermixed politics with entertainment. Reagan also openly confronted communist sympathizers at HICCASP meetings.

Kengor’s book entitled: “Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century” describes some of the heated exchanges between Reagan and other leading Hollywood figures who identified with Soviet Union. By this time, Bogart also saw fit to distance himself from any unsavory ties, although he did not move to the right as decisively as Reagan did, Kengor notes.

Before he landed the lead part in “King’s Row,” it appears Reagan was briefly considered for the role of “Rick” in “Casablanca,” which eventually went to Bogart. How serious of a contender Reagan was for Casablanca is not entirely clear, Kengor said. In the end, the final casting worked out for both actors. Reagan considered “Kings Row” to be his best film, as did many critics, and Casablanca helped make Bogart a household name.

“Reagan and Bogart liked each other and respected each other and got along very well,” Kengor said. “Reagan went to Bogart’s funeral and Bogart was also a member of Reagan’s fan club.”

It was common practice for the studios to organize fan clubs and Bogart was one of 15 honorary members of the Ronald Reagan fan club. Bette Davis was also a member of the club.

Part 2 of Reagan’s Hollywood Career Overshadowed by Political Legacy – More meaty roles overlooked by Reagan biographers.

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