His many political critics used Ronald Reagan’s work in the fluffy 1950s comedy “Bedtime for Bonzo” to remind voters that he was just an actor — and a B-movie player, at that.
The president’s days as an in-demand actor weren’t merely a table read for the biggest role of his life. His Hollywood tenure helped shape his character, refine his communication skills and hone negotiating tactics that would serve him — and the country — well during his two-term presidency.
And purely on aesthetic grounds, it’s simply wrong to say Reagan’s film legacy was that of a glorified set-filler.
John Meroney, author of an upcoming book on Reagan’s role in the Hollywood labor movement and battles with industry Communists, argues that the public has been badly misinformed about the future president’s time in Hollywood.
Mr. Meroney recalls a project that cried out for a Gregory Peck-type actor to play the lead. Industry titan Jack Warner told the film’s producers they didn’t need to go outside the Warner Bros. studio.
“We have Ronald Reagan. He’s our Gregory Peck,” said Mr. Warner, according to Mr. Meroney.
“He had a face and demeanor that was made to be an A-movie star. Audiences responded to him that way,” said Mr. Meroney, who provides audio commentary for a new Warner Bros. DVD set “The Ronald Reagan Centennial Collection.”
Bob Birchard, editor of the American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films, said that while Reagan never attained major star status, he provided directors with a “solid leading man” who could break through at times to a top-quality performance.
Critics generally contend Reagan’s best screen work came in the 1942 drama “Kings Row,” in which he famously cried, “Where’s the rest of me?” after a botched surgery. He also drew acclaim for the 1949 drama “The Hasty Heart,” as well as his gridiron heroism in “Knute Rockne, All American” (1940). The latter earned him the nickname “The Gipper,” one he dusted off during his political career to colorful effect.
What Reagan lacked, Mr. Birchard said, is a signature role like a Dirty Harry or John Rambo that could have helped define his career.
And “Bonzo,” in which Reagan’s co-star was a chimp, didn’t qualify on any level.
That movie “made good political fodder,” Mr. Birchard said. “But it’s a perfectly entertaining film, nothing to be ashamed of. It only became an issue because he was in the political arena.”
Mark Joseph, producer of an upcoming biopic of the 41st president, said Reagan’s days as a union leader as head of the Screen Actors Guild gave him a crash course in conflict resolution. Those experiences taught him how to threaten, when to cajole and an “incredible sense of timing,” Mr. Joseph says.
The president’s sense of humor didn’t hurt.
Reagan as president once told an aide prior to meeting Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, “I dealt with the Communists back in Hollywood. I’ve got this under control,” Mr. Joseph recalled.
But having a skilled actor in the White House wasn’t a plus at all times.
“The downside of this type of a presidency is you’re only as good as the people around you,” Mr. Joseph said. “When they fail you, you’re more at risk than in a typical presidency … like with [the Iran-contra scandal].”
But being a familiar presence on both the big and small screen usually worked to his advantage, said Christopher C. Presley, director of professional development for the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University.
“When you’ve seen an actor in so many roles, you feel like you have an intimacy with them,” Mr. Presley said.
For Reagan, acting allowed him to convey the sense of self he wanted, the one that fit the needs of a given moment.
“A trained actor knows good acting is the honest expression of themselves within a given set of circumstances,” Mr. Presley said. “A bad actor will play an idea or type, a stereotype, without even realizing it. A good actor will put themselves in the circumstance and let whatever’s unique about them come out.”
Seth Linden, a media coach and executive vice president of Dukas Public Relations, said Reagan’s lengthy film career afforded him decades to sharpen his ability to connect with the masses. By the time he switched gears to politics, he knew precisely how to phrase what he wanted to say.
But great speechmaking isn’t simply about proper enunciating. It involves knowing what not to say as well.
Former presidential speechwriter James Humes wrote for Reagan as well as Presidents Ford and Nixon. According to Mr. Linden, Mr. Humes once said when he submitted a speech to Nixon he would edit it for policy issues. When he did the same for Reagan, the man known by many as “The Great Communicator” edited it for style.
“He had the ear and knew how language affects people,” Mr. Linden said. “And he understood what an audience needs to hear. It’s why he resonated so well in his first term. The country needed a hopeful message.”
The timbre of Reagan’s voice and his natural charm did the rest.
“He was clearly born with tremendous talent,” Mr. Linden said.