Before the election of the current U.S. president—a businessman, TV star, and the oldest to hold office—the former oldest elected president was also an actor: Ronald Reagan. The two-term fortieth president, who served from 1981 to 1989, is cited by historians for his economic policy, or Reaganomics, for ending the Cold War, and for setting the conservative agenda for the 21st century.
The most popular president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Reagan left office with a remarkable 63 percent approval rating. Since his death in 2004, his popularity has only increased: He is cited as the ninth best president, according to C-SPAN’s 2017 Presidential Historian Survey. Unsurprisingly, the affable actor’s best trait is considered his ability for public persuasion, where he scores fifth (first in public persuasion is FDR).
Reagan’s theatrical training set the stage for his successful run in politics. Before he served in public office, over the course of 30 years he appeared in 53 movies. A masterful political performer, he had many affectionate nicknames, including Dutch, the Gipper, and the Great Communicator. As he famously (and presciently) said, “How can a president NOT be an actor?”
Ronald Reagan’s life path may have seemed unusual at the time. You can trace it back to his high school and college years, where he vigorously pursued acting and athletics. His father nicknamed him Dutch, which stuck through his youth. He played football, swam, ran track, acted in school plays, and served as student council president, setting precedents that saw him through his careers as a movie star and a politician. After graduating Eureka College in Illinois, in 1932, he became a radio announcer, where in another marriage of acting and athletics he specialized in announcing baseball games.
In California in 1937, to cover spring training, Reagan met a movie agent from whom he wrangled a screen test. His chiseled looks and smooth voice landed him a contract as a B-movie actor with Warner Brothers. Fittingly, his screen debut was as a radio announcer in Love Is on the Air. Within three years, he’d starred in more than 20 movies with such superstars of the era as Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and Errol Flynn. It was during this time that he met and married his first wife, the actress Jane Wyman, on the set of Brother Rat.
In 1940, Reagan appeared in the film that would give him a nickname that followed him into politics. In Knute Rockne, All American, another role combining his genial personality with his authentic athleticism, Reagan played real-life college football star George Gipp. The young football player died of pneumonia during his senior year days after leading Notre Dame to victory and inspired Coach Rockne to exhort his team to “win one for the Gipper.” In one scene, Rockne asks Gipp if he can carry the ball, and the star player asks “How far?” with, as a 2004 Washington Post tribute noted, “an insouciance that typified Reagan, in both his film and political careers.”
Reagan’s most critically acclaimed role was in Kings Row, a film released in 1942, in which he plays a young man whose legs are amputated after an accident by a sadistic doctor who suspects the man of having an affair with his daughter. Upon awakening, Reagan’s horrified character gasps, “Where’s the rest of me?” This line would become the title of his 1965 autobiography.
All was not spotlight bright during Reagan’s Hollywood career, however. A 1947 film, That Hagen Girl, paired then 36-year-old Reagan with 19-year-old Shirley Temple, in an attempt to transition the former child star into more adult roles. The film flopped. Reagan joined the nascent Screen Actors Guild and, in another bit of foreshadowing of his political future, within a few years had become president. Displeased with the time he devoted to the SAG, Wyman filed for divorce.
Convinced communism was infiltrating Hollywood, Reagan became an informant during the “Red Scare,” an interesting twist given his later role with the Cold War, and helped instigate the Black List to keep communists out of the film industry. It was during Congressional hearings into Anti-American Activities that he met an actress who felt she had been wrongly put on a list of communist sympathizers. Nancy Davis would become Ronald Reagan’s most important leading lady when they got married on March 4, 1952.
Shortly thereafter, Reagan transitioned to hosting a television show and giving motivational speeches. He emerged on the political scene in 1964 using his impressive cadences in a speech for the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater. In 1966, Reagan won the governorship of California, where he served two terms before running for president. He was 69 in 1980 when he beat the incumbent Jimmy Carter to take over the White House.
In one last creepy collision of Reagan’s roles as a film actor and a public figure, the president became the victim of an assassination attempt by a star-obsessed stalker in 1981. John Hinckley fired six shots outside a Hilton Hotel in D.C., wounding a secret service man, a police officer, the press secretary, as well as Reagan himself, when a ricocheting bullet pierced his chest.
The would-be assassin was obsessed with actress Jodie Foster and her role in Taxi Driver and wrote her a sick letter before his crime, explaining how he hoped his despicable act would win him her love. In his characteristic way, Reagan joked with doctors at the hospital, “I hope you’re Republicans.”
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In 1994 Reagan revealed he had Alzheimer’s disease. He died at home June 5, 2004.