- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2004

It was a line straight out of an old movie, but hardly anyone knew that at the time.

“I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green,” presidential candidate Ronald Reagan thundered at debate moderator Jon Breen, getting his name wrong, that February night in 1980 in Nashua, N.H.

Mr. Breen had instructed sound technicians to turn off Mr. Reagan’s mike because he had brought along four other Republican candidates to what was billed as a two-man debate between him and George Bush.

Mr. Reagan came across as a champion of free speech, open debate and all things healthily American. Nothing Mr. Bush could say after that could change the new dynamic.

And not until years later did journalists and pundits realize that Mr. Reagan’s outburst came originally, nearly word for word, from the mouth of Spencer Tracy as an upstanding presidential candidate in Frank Capra’s 1948 movie “State of the Union.”

By that time, the nation was used to the way President Reagan could mesh life and art.

Indeed, Mr. Reagan’s triumphs as a two-term governor of California and then a two-term president of the United States derived in great measure from the expressive skills and popular rapport he acquired as an entertainer. Using broadcasting and acting as stepping stones to political activism and then candidacy, he was the first president to take advantage of the experience and name recognition gained as a performer in radio, motion pictures and television.

Earlier presidents had been credited with acting prowess, often by sarcastic opponents. Mr. Reagan’s first political hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, made the radio an instrument of policy during his famous “fireside chats.” However, Mr. Reagan was the first president who literally apprenticed as a prominent professional actor.

He also may have been the last presidential aspirant who could claim such an apprenticeship for its own sake. He had not envisioned himself as a politician until middle age. His path to Washington looped way around the beaten path that leads from law school to elective office. All politically ambitious celebrities now realize that show business can culminate in the White House.

Making the leap

Radio and motion pictures flourished as new mass entertainment media more or less simultaneously in the early decades of the 20th century. When talkies began to supplant silent movies permanently in 1928 and 1929, the mutual interests of broadcasting and Hollywood were decisively enhanced. Performers who attracted a following in one medium were potential draws in another.

Although singers, comedians and dance bands were the likeliest prospects for combining radio careers with movie careers, Ronald Reagan demonstrated that the leap to Hollywood also could be navigated from regional sports broadcasting.

Active in both dramatics and athletics while attending Eureka College in Illinois, Mr. Reagan contemplated an acting career but found it more prudent to try broadcasting when he began job hunting as a recent graduate in the summer of 1932. Chicago was a major source of radio programming at the time and much closer to home.

Mr. Reagan was not hired in Chicago but he did catch on at WHO in Des Moines, Iowa. A 50,000-watt station that reached most of the Midwest, it brought him a national audience within a few years. When WHO became an NBC affiliate, he was heard on coast-to-coast sports broadcasts. His beat eventually included reporting on the Chicago Cubs’ spring training activities from Catalina Island, a favorite vacation retreat for the movie colony in nearby Hollywood.

In addition to his frequent coverage of football, baseball, track and swimming, Mr. Reagan interviewed entertainers who were working in Des Moines. One, band singer Joy Hodge, introduced him to Hollywood agent Bill Meiklejohn when their paths crossed in Los Angeles in the spring of 1937.

The agent arranged a screen test. Mr. Reagan was sufficiently impressive in a scene from Philip Barry’s “Holiday” to be offered a seven-year contract by Warner Bros., starting at a salary of $200 a week.

But films as classy as “Holiday” were rarely within his reach during a Warner Bros. career that extended over 15 years. He made his screen debut in 1937 in a leading role, cast as a crusading, crime-busting broadcaster in the low-budget melodrama “Love is on the Air,” a remake of a Paul Muni film.

A robust, affable presence

Right from the start, Mr. Reagan was hostage to the “echo chamber” economies of Warners, which frequently remade films and maintained a busy B unit, partly as a testing ground for newcomers.

During his first full years at the studio, 1938 and 1939, he appeared in 16 films, typically cast as a lead in B movies and a supporting player in the occasional A. He later joked that he was the studio’s “Errol Flynn of the B’s.”

Swashbuckling hero Brass Bancroft, introduced by Mr. Reagan in the 1939 potboiler “Secret Service of the Air,” was revived in three sequels. While being fitfully groomed as a leading man — always a plausible consummation, given his robust, affable presence on screen — he appeared in a couple of Flynn starring films, “Santa Fe Trail” and “Desperate Journey.”

Mr. Reagan made several fast friends during his apprenticeship, including established stars Dick Powell, Pat O’Brien and James Cagney. Private life may have been more gratifying than professional advancement, since he was attracted to another Warners contract player, Jane Wyman, a trained theatrical actress who had lingered in subsidiary parts.

They were married on Jan. 26, 1940. Gossip queen Louella Parsons, who had taken a fond interest in the couple, insisted on hosting the reception at her home. A daughter, Maureen, was born to the Reagans on their first anniversary — Jan. 27, 1941. They adopted a son, Michael, in 1945.

The Reagans were promising but struggling Hollywood prospects. Their salaries were more or less identical, about $500 a week. The war years soon would change the nature of both careers and place an irreparable burden on the marriage.

A challenging part

Mr. Reagan finally secured roles that might have persuaded studio boss Jack Warner to envision him as a star: as George Gipp in “Knute Rockne, All American” (1940) and as Drake McHugh in “Kings Row” (1942). Curiously, both roles were in the nature of stout-hearted playboys who suffered cruel fates.

In “Kings Row,” McHugh awakes from surgery and discovers that a sadistic physician has amputated both his legs. The stunned man asks from his bed, “Where’s the rest of me?”

The part was an enormous challenge, Mr. Reagan later recalled in his autobiography, which took its title from the famous line.

“Worst of all,” he wrote, “I had to give my reaction in a line of no more than five words.”

Mr. Reagan said he rehearsed before mirrors, consulted doctors, talked to disabled people and “commenced to panic” as the day for shooting came.

“The reason was that I had put myself as best I could into the body of another fellow,” he wrote. “And since that time, no single line in my career has been as effective in explaining to me what an actor’s life must be.”

“Knute Rockne,” of course, produced that familiar catchphrase from the Reagan White House years about winning one for the Gipper.

The momentum of the back-to-back roles could have carried Mr. Reagan to the threshold of a still youthful and vigorous starring career, but World War II kept him in neutral. A member of the Army’s cavalry reserve from his days in Iowa, when he first became an enthusiastic horseman, he was drafted soon after America’s entry in the war.

The Army years

Though disqualified from combat duty for weak eyesight, he was recommissioned a lieutenant and later was transferred to the Army Air Corps and assigned to a Hollywood outfit, shooting military training films at the former Hal Roach Studio in Culver City.

Mr. Reagan remained close at home but also in uniform. He returned to Warners for one major role, in the film version of Irving Berlin’s enormously popular patriotic revue “This Is the Army,” a prodigious fund-raiser on stage and screen.

By the time he was discharged in December 1945, Miss Wyman had received a belated break: the key supporting role to Ray Milland in Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning movie version of “The Lost Weekend,” made at Paramount.

Mr. Reagan’s agent, Lew Wasserman of the soon-to-be formidable Music Corporation of America, had negotiated an advantageous contract renewal with Warners in 1942. It raised the actor’s salary to $3,000 a week and included some juggling that allowed Mr. Wasserman to claim it as the first “million-dollar” contract in Hollywood — assuming the terms held for the entire seven years.

While Miss Wyman became a prestige star in the immediate aftermath of the war, winning an Academy Award as best actress for 1948 in “Johnny Belinda,” Mr. Reagan never caught a break comparable to his last “Kings Row” opportunity.

The sharply diverging careers led to a divorce in 1948, one of the few Hollywood break-ups without infidelity as the culprit. Miss Parsons was so distraught that she characterized it as the saddest split since Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks divorced a decade earlier.

Leading the Guild

Active in the Screen Actors Guild since 1938, Mr. Reagan found a more satisfying outlet for his aspirations in Guild activity after the war. He was the union’s president during the acrimonious period that climaxed with congressional testimony declaring Communist Party influence in Hollywood in 1947.

Mr. Reagan was a voice of moderate Hollywood liberalism during the hearings in October that led to an industry blacklist of Communist Party members or sympathizers. Evidently, he was less circumspect and conciliatory in private. About 50 years later, it was established that he testified in private for the FBI and candidly identified certain Guild members as Communist provocateurs.

Mr. Reagan had the occasional good role during the remainder of his career in feature films — especially “The Hasty Heart” in 1949 and “The Winning Team” in 1952, in which he played baseball immortal Grover Cleveland Alexander.

He was the lead in one of the novelty hits of the decade, the domestic farce “Bedtime for Bonzo.” It became a reliable source of ridicule for later political opponents and mockers, since Mr. Reagan and other cast members were routinely upstaged by a chimpanzee.

Mr. Reagan’s Guild leadership had brought a young actress named Nancy Davis to his attention in 1950. She had appealed for help as an inadvertent victim of the blacklist when she was mistaken for another, suspect Nancy Davis.

The couple were married on March 4, 1952. Another staunch Hollywood pal, William Holden, was the best man. A daughter, Patricia, was born in October of that year. Son Ronald was born in 1958.

The Reagans co-starred in “Hellcats of the Navy,” a 1957 World War II melodrama. It was destined to be Mr. Reagan’s next-to-last feature as a Hollywood star, as he was obliged to return to his B-movie origins while 20 years older.

An incongruous “comeback” role did follow in 1964: He played the mobster villain in Don Siegel’s remake of “The Killers,” intended as a made-for-TV movie but rerouted to features when its violence was judged too graphic.

Turn to television

Reluctantly, Mr. Reagan had been persuaded to try a television acting career. He found an ideal fit as host and occasional performer on the anthology series “The General Electric Theatre,” a format his resourceful friend Dick Powell had anticipated a few years earlier with “Four Star Theatre.”

The GE series began in 1953. Mr. Reagan became a fixture in the second season. In addition to job security for eight years, “GE Theatre” provided him with the opportunity to serve as the corporation’s official spokesman and goodwill ambassador.

The timing was fortunate, since he wanted to distance himself from Guild activism and felt less affinity with the Democratic Party. He found a new public platform and party affiliation while representing GE.

A prominent “Democrat for Eisenhower” and then for Richard Nixon in consecutive presidential races, Mr. Reagan finally switched to the Republican Party in 1962. Four years later, he was the party’s successful candidate for governor of California.

Mr. Reagan’s close relationship with Lew Wasserman also complicated his tenure as Guild president. Some muckraking journalists, notably Dan E. Moldea in the show business polemic “Dark Victory: Ronald Reagan, MCA and the Mob,” have claimed that it was a profoundly compromising relationship.

Mr. Reagan helped negotiate a pivotal Guild contract of 1952 that granted MCA, then a talent agency with expansive aspirations, a waiver to enter television production.

This was a trade-off for sharing residual income with Guild members. There’s no denying that the deal proved a boon for the membership. The residual windfall that has benefited thousands of actors in subsequent decades began with the innovative 1952 pact.

Nevertheless, it remains a matter of dispute whether MCA got the lion’s share of the advantage. The company went on to dominate television production in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Justice Department declined to bring criminal indictments after forcing MCA to choose between talent representation and production-distribution in the early 1960s.

Mr. Reagan was keenly aware of the appearance of cronyism. He had tried to ease away from an active role in both the 1952 waiver and a renewal two years later. But he remained Guild president and endured some excruciating cross-examination while testifying at a Justice Department inquiry in 1961.

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