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Reagan film career featured comedy, drama
Ronald Reagan's boy-next-door quality as an actor brought him film roles as diverse as the victim of an evil surgeon in "King's Row" and the college professor who experiments with raising a chimpanzee in the comedy "Bedtime for Bonzo."
Reagan appeared in more than 50 films over two decades in Hollywood before gradually shifting into politics, where his warm, clear voice and knack for appearing relaxed and sincere in front of an audience served him in good stead.
Working mostly for Warner Bros., he appeared with such stars as Errol Flynn ("Santa Fe Trail," 1940), Wallace Beery and Lionel Barrymore ("The Bad Man," 1941), Shirley Temple ("That Hagen Girl," 1947), Ann Sheridan ("Juke Girl," 1942) and Patricia Neal ("John Loves Mary," 1949).
While never reaching the superstar level of friends such as Jimmy Stewart, Reagan advanced from "B" pictures to major roles in larger productions.
In 1939, he had a supporting role as a carefree playboy in the Bette Davis weeper "Dark Victory."
In "Knute Rockne: All-American," 1940, Reagan played George Gipp, the doomed football star who was Rockne's protege. Reagan convinced the producers he could play the role by showing pictures of himself in his college football uniform.
"Ask them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper," the dying Gipp tells Rockne, played by Pat O'Brien.
Reagan once called the role "the springboard which bounced me into a wider variety of parts in pictures. Before that, I always played a jet-propelled newspaper man who solved more crimes than a lie detector."
"King's Row," 1942, was a small-town melodrama featuring Reagan as a man whose legs are amputated by a twisted surgeon bent on revenge. He called it his best film. His anguished cry, "Where's the rest of me?", was a highlight of the film and became the title of his first autobiography in 1965. Variety praised Reagan's "continuously believable job" in the role.
He wrote later that the anguish in the scene was real. His legs were hidden in a hole in the bed. As he lay there, the illusion that his legs were gone was so spooky that he asked the director to film him on the spot so he could use his anxiety to add reality to his performance.
On the lighter side was "Bedtime for Bonzo," 1951, in which Reagan, as a professor, played second fiddle to a chimpanzee the professor was raising as part of an experiment in development.
One disappointment in his career was that Warner Bros., known for typecasting its players, kept him from doing Westerns. As a free-lancer in the early '50s, he was finally able to make some, including "Cattle Queen of Montana" with Barbara Stanwyck.
As the magazine "Films in Review" wrote in 1967, "Opinions may differ about Ronald Reagan's politics but even the political enemies of California's present governor grant that, as an actor, he made the most of what he had."
Both his wives were fellow performers. Jane Wyman, married to Reagan from 1940 to 1949, had a long career including an Academy Award-winning performance in "Johnny Belinda." They met when both in the cast of the 1938 military school comedy "Brother Rat," one of Reagan's first big roles in a major picture.
Nancy Davis, whom he married in 1952, appeared with Reagan in the World War II submarine yarn "Hellcats of the Navy" in 1957.
Reagan, a Democrat in his acting days, got a taste of politics when he served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1947 to 1952 and from 1959 to 1960.
"Ronald Reagan presided over Screen Actors Guild at one of the most challenging moments in our union's history, as the rise of television significantly impacted the compensation and working conditions for the nation's screen actors," Screen Actors Guild President Melissa Gilbert said in a statement Saturday. "He leaves behind an enduring legacy to this industry, as he does to the country as a whole."
Reagan met Nancy, then working at MGM, when she tried to get the Guild to straighten out a problem involving leftist organizations that were wrongly using her name. And Reagan said his battles with entertainment industry leftists in those years strengthened his opposition to Communism.
In his 1990 autobiography, "An American Life," Reagan recalled that a teacher had encouraged his schoolboy efforts at acting, pressing him to empathize with a character to discover his motivation.
A radio sports announcer after college, Reagan managed to land a contract with Warner Bros. while in California covering the Chicago Cubs training camp.
He played a radio announcer in his first picture, "Love Is on the Air," in 1937 and was an announcer again the following year in "Boy Meets Girl." Of the latter film, Variety said Reagan "makes his brief opportunity register."
He had a bigger role later in 1938 with the "B" picture "Girls on Probation." Wrote Variety, "The cast does not include strong WB marquee talent, but performances by the various members of the company are adequate. Ronald Reagan seems a little lightweight as a d. a. and is perhaps a little too soft for that kind of a job, but otherwise, especially romantically, he serves well."
Like many actors of his generation, Reagan was critical of filmdom's latter-day frankness on sexual themes.
"You can call me a blockhead or a prude if you want, but ... if I was offered a script and told I had to say those words I would have turned down the script," he said in a 1989 speech. But he said he did not want outside censorship, calling on Hollywood to police itself.