Reagan owed his movie breakthrough to two scenes he played in bed
Ronald Reagan briefly became a box-office hit after playing real-life college football star George Gipp, who dies prematurely in Knute Rockne, All American (1940), a biopic of the great University of Notre Dame football coach.
His inspirational deathbed words to his coach entered movie history: “Some day when things are tough for the team, maybe you can ask the boys to go in and win just one for the Gipper”.
Shortly afterwards he made arguably his best movie, King’s Row (1942), playing a good-time Charlie whose legs are needlessly amputated following an accident by a sadistic doctor who suspects him of an affair with his daughter.
The film also features Reagan’s single most famous scene, which he did in a single take: his highly convincing portrayal of horror at the post-operation discovery of the double amputation. He used the line he utters, “Where’s the rest of me?” for the title of his first volume of memoirs published in 1965 as a prelude to his run for California governor.
Ronald Reagan was an FBI informer in postwar Hollywood
During the Hollywood Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Reagan was active in film industry politics as chairman of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).
He became an FBI informer in 1947, providing the Feds with the names of actors suspected of being Communist Party members or sympathisers. The names of the people that Reagan informed upon are redacted in his FBI file, but they were probably already known to the FBI from the testimony of former Communists, who were its main source of information about party membership in the film community.
Considering Reagan an ally, FBI director J Edgar Hoover took a friendly interest in the development of his political career. Shortly before Reagan announced his candidacy for the California governorship, the FBI discovered that his adopted son, Michael, had unknowingly become close friends with the son of Mafia boss, Joseph ‘Joe Bananas’ Bonnano.
Hoover arranged for a confidential tip-off so that Reagan could warn Michael to break off the association before it became an embarrassment.
Shirley Temple considered Reagan one of her best screen kissers
Reagan was seemingly destined for major stardom until he was called up for military service in 1942. On his return, Warner Brothers could not find the right picture for him.
The studio paired him with Shirley Temple, then seeking to develop a career as an adult star, in That Hagen Girl (1947). The ludicrous storyline saw the 36-year-old Reagan character eventually marry the 19-year-old Temple character – who was thought for most of the movie to be his illegitimate daughter.
Temple later commented that Reagan was one of her best screen kissers, but audiences were unready to see the onetime child star romantically involved with the older man. A box-office flop, the movie helped to send Reagan’s film career into decline and to bring Temple’s adult acting career to a premature end.
Ronald Reagan only became a Republican in 1962
In every presidential election from 1932 to 1948, Reagan voted Democrat in gratitude for the help that Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal had given hard-pressed Americans in the 1930s, not least to his own family (his father and brother were employed on New Deal work relief agencies in 1933–34).
He changed political outlook partly from resentment of high taxes, partly from belief that Roosevelt had never intended permanent big government, and partly because he thought Republicans took the Communist threat more seriously.
Reagan would have registered as a Republican in 1960, but was persuaded that he could do more good as a ‘Democrat-for-Nixon’ in Richard Nixon’s contest with John F Kennedy for the presidency. Reagan finally formalised his partisan conversion in 1962, and made his political mark in delivering a rousing nationwide television address for the doomed Republican presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater two years later.
Reagan only played a villain in one movie
Reagan grew increasingly frustrated at being typecast as the nice guy in his postwar films. He eventually got to play a villainous gang boss in The Killers (1964), a made-for-television version of the 1946 noir classic.
In one scene, the Reagan character viciously slapped his moll, played by Angie Dickinson. NBC objected that this was too violent for family viewing on television. The film was consequently put on commercial release, but was not shown on Sundays because of the Reagan slap scene. It was the last movie he ever made.
Ronald Reagan won the presidency at his third attempt
Reagan made his first bid for the presidency in 1968 as the ‘favourite son’ candidate of the California delegation at the Republican National Convention.
He did not campaign openly, but hoped the party would turn to him if it failed to nominate a presidential candidate on the first ballot. Richard Nixon’s easy victory put paid to this plan.
In 1976 Reagan challenged the incumbent but unelected Republican president, Gerald Ford, for their party’s presidential nomination. They were neck-and-neck in terms of delegate support going into the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, but Ford gained enough uncommitted delegates to win.
This was the last occasion that a major political party held a national convention when the identity of its presidential nominee was in doubt.
It was third time lucky for Reagan in 1980. He established an early lead over his closest rival, George HW Bush (father of George W Bush), to win his party’s presidential nomination with ease (he made Bush his running-mate).
He ran against President Jimmy Carter in the general election. Miserable economic conditions (inflation was running at 13 percent and unemployment at seven per cent), fears that the US was losing the Cold War, and the humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis, destroyed the Democrat’s hope of re-election. Reagan won because of Carter’s unpopularity rather than his own conservative appeal.
Until Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, Ronald Reagan was America’s oldest president
Reagan was two weeks short of his 70th birthday on his inauguration as president. The previous oldest president, William Henry Harrison (1841), was 68 upon taking office, but died within a month after contracting a bad cold during his inauguration. The next oldest was Dwight D Eisenhower (1953–61), who was 70 when he left office.
Reagan completed two terms despite being seriously wounded in an assassination attempt just weeks after he took office. He suffered considerable health problems in his second term: he required an operation to remove a non-benign colon tumour in 1985, a colonoscopy to remove two benign tumours, the removal of skin cancer from his nose, and prostate surgery (all in 1987).
Doubtless Reagan’s daily exercise regime both in the White House and his ranch near Santa Barbara (to where he often retreated) helped him pull through – doctors commented that he had the insides of a 40-year-old after his 1985 surgery.
Despite his health problems, Reagan outlived three Soviet leaders who died when he was in office: Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko.
Roosevelt, Jefferson and Coolidge were Reagan’s favourite predecessors
Reagan revered Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, apostle of limited national government, and America’s third president (1801–09). He delivered his Economic Bill of Rights Address on 3 July 1987 at the foot of the Jefferson Memorial, to symbolise his commitment to Jefferson’s legacy.
Reagan also held Calvin Coolidge (1923–29) in high regard for his advocacy of low taxes and economy in government. This flew in the face of conventional historical opinion that Coolidge was a ‘below average’ president.
As president, Reagan had Coolidge’s portrait moved from the White House Grand Hall to the Cabinet Room, where it was placed next to Jefferson’s portrait in recognition that he had upheld the third president’s belief in limited government.
Without doubt, however, Reagan’s favourite president was Franklin D Roosevelt (1933–45), whom he had supported in four elections. Despite his own move to the right, Reagan never lost his admiration for FDR’s resourceful and inspirational leadership of the United States during the crisis years of the Great Depression and the Second World War.
He drove Democrats to distraction by appropriating for his Conservative purposes phrases that Roosevelt had coined to promote liberalism.
Reagan was both the biggest tax-cutter and the biggest peacetime tax increaser in American history
Today’s Republicans idealise Reagan’s legacy as a tax-cutter in their stand against raising taxes to reduce the giant US budget deficit, but this is a highly selective reading of history.
Reagan certainly promoted the largest tax reduction in American history in the form of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, which embodied supply-side principles. Yet he also promoted the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, which raised some taxes in order to counter the alarming growth of the budget deficit.
In the following year, he agreed to accelerate scheduled increases in payroll taxes to ensure the solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund that finances pension payments for eligible senior citizens. And in 1984 he accepted the Deficit Reduction Act, which mandated further tax increases to close the budget gap.
Taken together, these three tax hikes meant that Reagan had presided over the largest tax increases in the peacetime history of the US. His tax record suggests that Reagan was a pragmatic ideologue rather than an ideological purist.
Reagan’s historical reputation is on the up
As soon as his presidency ended in January 1989, Ronald Reagan’s historical reputation came under attack from liberal critics and scholars. In consequence, he was generally marked ‘average’ in presidential ratings during the 1990s.
Following his death on 5 June 2004, however, there has been a marked improvement in his historical rating – he is now usually found in the top 10 of presidents, with a ‘near great’ or ‘good’ ranking. This reflects growing appreciation of his leadership skills, his role in laying the foundations for the US’s Cold War success, and his avoidance of political polarisation with the Democrats (who controlled the House of Representatives through his entire presidency and the Senate in his last two years in office).
Reagan also racked up a huge quantity of public honours in his post-presidency. He was awarded, among other things, an honorary British knighthood, an honorary fellowship from Keble College, Oxford, and the Congressional Medal of Freedom.
In 1998 Bill Clinton signed a bill to rename the Washington DC national airport after him, the same year the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Centre (the second largest government building in Washington DC) was dedicated. And in 2001 the US Navy launched USS Ronald Reagan, the first aircraft carrier to be named after a living former president.
Professor Iwan Morgan’s biography of Ronald Reagan was published by IB Tauris in 2016
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2014 and has been updated to include current and previous presidents since publication