Popular politician, thesp known for folksy demeanor

This article was updated at 8:04 p.m.

HOLLYWOOD — Ronald Reagan, an actor of modest renown who went on to become the “Great Communicator” as president of the U.S., died Saturday at his Bel-Air home after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 93.

Reagan died of pneumonia, as a complication of Alzheimer’s.

As an actor, Reagan was always pleasant and serviceable, never embarrassing, but rarely exciting — a sort of Fred MacMurray, without as many nuances. But after Reagan was elected president, some joked that he had found his greatest role: He was able to connect with the voters in a way he had never connected with the audience.

Even those who disagreed with his policies admitted that he was one of the most charming chief executives to hold office: folksy, down-to-earth, self-deprecating.

Reagan served two terms in the White House, winning election in 1980 and 1984, and was one of the most popular national leaders of recent times.

Reagan was similarly popular as the governor of California for eight years, from 1967-75.

When he was elected governor, he had never held a public office before, which was a phenomenon: Though actor George Murphy had been elected to the U.S. Senate from California, no one had assumed such a high executive office in the Golden State without years in politics.

Whenever actors would get too serious about their causes, the popular retort was: “Calm down. There’s only one actor who ever changed history and that was John Wilkes Booth.”

After Reagan’s electoral wins, that joke was put to bed. No actor before or since has had such long-range political influence on the world.

But even in his acting days, Reagan had been an activist. He served as president of the Screen Actors Guild 1947-52 and 1959-60, a tenure fraught with controversy over possible conflicts of interest with his then-employer, MCA. It was also during this period that Reagan’s political leanings switched from liberal to conservative.

Professional and poised

Aside from a few notable performances, such as those in “King’s Row” and “The Killers,” Reagan’s 55 films consisted mostly of B-level assignments at Warner Bros. Contrary to legend, he did sometimes get the girl, but he rarely outshone his co-stars (who sometimes included Errol Flynn and Bette Davis).

He was professional and poised during his career in television as host of “General Electric Theater” and “Death Valley Days,” making him a household name and a high-priced ticket on the lecture circuit as a GE spokesman.

Writing in Film Comment, critic Richard Schickel said that as a film actor, Reagan “lacked the art to transform himself through art. For Reagan, lacking the gift of transcendence, acting could only provide an extension of reality, not an escape from it.”

But film and TV stardom was merely a prelude for what is regarded, even by his detractors, as one of the most successful political careers in the second half of the 20th century.

Humble start

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in Tampico, Ill., to John Edward and Nelle Reagan. His father, an itinerant shoe salesman, was a heavy drinker, which, Reagan wrote in his autobiography, left him with a lifelong aversion to alcohol.

After moving through various towns in Illinois, the Reagan family (which included another son, Neil) settled in Dixon. At Dixon High School, Reagan got his first taste of acting, which continued at Eureka College. He won an award at Northwestern U.’s annual one-act play festival for his role in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Aria da Capo.”

During the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt became his political hero. FDR demonstrated his warmth and ease at the microphone during the famous “Fireside Chats”; Reagan emulated this style, a talent that would later serve him well.

His vocal abilities landed him a job at WOC, a small radio station that broadcast the U. of Iowa football games. When WOC was merged with the larger WHO, Reagan’s voice was heard announcing Chicago Cubs games.

While covering the Cubs’ spring training on Catalina Island, Reagan was introduced to talent agent Bill Meikeljohn, who referred him to Warner Bros. casting director Max Arnow. A screen test resulted in a $200-a-week seven-year contract at WB.

His first assignment was a lead in the B-movie “Love Is on the Air,” in which he played a radio announcer. A number of forgettable supporting roles followed until “Brother Rat,” the film on which he met actress Jane Wyman, whom he married in 1940 at Kirk o’ Heather in Forest Lawn.

“Rat” was stolen by a rising actor named Eddie Albert, but the studio liked Reagan enough to miscast him as the fey best friend to Bette Davis in “Dark Victory.”

As the “Gipper” (George Gipp) in “Knute Rockne, All-American,” Reagan gave one of his favorite performances in a supporting role.

From then on he was a leading man, though second leads mostly. He also gave a memorable performance in 1942’s “King’s Row” as a small-town playboy whose legs are needlessly amputated by a sadistic surgeon. A line he uttered in the film later became the title of his autobiography: “Where’s the Rest of Me?”

Military man

“King’s Row” was Reagan’s greatest success as an actor, and it might have propelled him to greater stardom, but WWII intervened. He entered the Army as a second lieutenant, but because of nearsightedness he was transferred to the motion picture unit of the Air Corps, where he made training films.

He made several films during the war, including his most financially successful project, Irving Berlin’s “This Is the Army,” in 1943, but after that year he didn’t have another picture out until 1947, and his shot at real stardom had passed.

According to legend, Reagan was briefly considered for the role of Rick in “Casablanca,” but evidence is scanty and some film historians say he was really up for the role of Victor Laszlo, eventually played by Paul Henreid.

His agent Lew Wasserman renegotiated his contract to $3,500 a week (up from $1,650) after the war. But even though he appeared in high-profile projects like “Voice of the Turtle” and “The Hasty Heart,” Warners was more than happy to let him out of his contract so he could freelance.

Television had appeared on the horizon, and the studios, which had lost the right to own their own theaters, were scrambling to trim expenses. During those years he appeared in such forgettable films as “Bedtime for Bonzo” and “Cattle Queen of Montana.”

It was during this period that Reagan’s political career began.

As president of SAG, he joined other celebrities in a crusade against alleged Communist infiltration of Hollywood and served as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee, though he did not name names.

In 1948, Wyman divorced Reagan, in part because of his growing political involvement and because, she later said, she couldn’t bear to watch “King’s Row” one more time. Wyman is barely mentioned in his autobiography, although they were married for eight years and had two children, Maureen and an adopted son, Michael.

Shortly after divorcing Wyman, Reagan married aspiring actress Nancy Davis (they co-starred in a regrettable movie called “Hellcats of the Navy” in 1957), with whom he had two children Patti (Davis) and Ronald Reagan Jr. In a controversial move, SAG granted MCA the right to produce for television and promote its agency talent in its productions. There were allegations of kickbacks to Reagan, who was then president of SAG, but they were never proved.

In 1952, after a disastrous try at performing in Las Vegas, Reagan was hired by Wasserman to host “General Electric Theater.” He also traveled extensively for GE, giving speeches as part of the company’s public relations program. The GE connection forged his later commitment to the interests of big business.

After “GE Theater” went off the air, Reagan hosted “Death Valley Days” for three years.

Strike leader

During his final single-year tenure as SAG president from 1959-60, Reagan led the union in a five-week strike over residuals. Screen actors got a pension, health and welfare plan (radio and TV actors already had these benefits) and residuals for films made after 1960. They lost any residuals for pre-1948 films (which were regularly shown on TV and later on homevideo), and the producers paid a lump sum to SAG for films made between 1948-60.

SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert issued the following statement:

“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. Under his tenure, SAG grew significantly in size and influence as the guild tackled issues ranging from runaway production to fair compensation to unity in an increasingly complex industry — all issues that remain timely to working actors today.

“It can be said that Ronald Reagan got his start in politics at Screen Actors Guild. … He devoted years of his life to advancing the wages, benefits and working conditions of his fellow actors. He leaves behind an enduring legacy to this industry, as he does to the country as a whole. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family today.”

New party

In 1962, Reagan switched to the Republican Party, ending once and for all what he referred to as his previous “hemophiliac liberalism.” Two years later, after the defeat of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, the conservative mantle passed from Goldwater to Reagan, who in a pre-taped speech for Goldwater, “A Time for Choosing,” became the party’s new star.

In 1965, he made his final film, “The Killers,” playing a villain for the first time. It is considered one of his best performances, but he resented the assignment and broke with longtime agent Wasserman over the role. Wasserman, a lifelong Democrat, later mended fences when Reagan won the presidency.

In November 1966, running for governor, Reagan beat incumbent Edmund Brown by a handy 1 million votes and four years later trounced longtime state political power Jesse Unruh by a half-million vote margin.

He ran for president in 1968, only to lose the Republican nomination to Richard Nixon, then ran again in 1976, challenging incumbent Gerald Ford. Ford prevailed, but when Reagan addressed the GOP convention, many delegates left feeling they’d nominated the wrong man.

Reagan finally won the GOP nom in 1980 and won the election by 51% to 41% over incumbent Jimmy Carter. He beat Walter Mondale in a landslide victory in 1984.

Reagan presided over an aggressive military buildup that led to a whopping budget deficit. His laissez-faire style of leadership has been alternately praised and damned. The effects of his “Reaganomics” and “trickle-down” theories are still being felt.

Showbiz deregulation

For the entertainment industry, it was a period of deregulation, which led eventually to studios being able to own theaters again, and, several years later (during the Clinton administration), to networks being allowed to own programming (a right that fourth network Fox had successfully achieved during the administration of the first President Bush).

As the nation’s first lady during Reagan’s years in the White House, Nancy Reagan made a name for herself by championing the anti-drug campaign and slogan taught to children “Just say no.”

President Reagan was badly wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt, shot by a disturbed stalker trying to emulate the protag of “Taxi Driver.” But even as Reagan entered the emergency room that day, his showbiz instincts served him well. He chose to walk into the hospital rather than be wheeled in on a stretcher, sparing the nation the image of its leader laid low.

Indeed, his effectiveness as a political leader and his reputation as the Great Communicator owed much to his Hollywood background. The highlight-reel moments of his political career, “There you go again, Mr. President” in his debate with Jimmy Carter and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!,” gained their power more from his keen sense of timing and emotional delivery than from memorable language.

In short, he may not have been much of a wordsmith, but he had a instinct for drama and knew how to deliver a line.

His timing was still in evidence when, on Nov. 5, 1994, he released an open letter announcing that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s. The letter ended with characteristic optimism for the country he had helped to reshape in his own conservative image.

“I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life,” he wrote. “I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead. Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you. Sincerely, Ronald Reagan.”

Shortly thereafter, he stopped making public appearances.

CBS’ mini migraine

In his years out of public view, however, he became an even greater icon for American conservatives, so beloved that CBS pulled its “The Reagans” mini, about Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s life together, from its November 2003 sweeps sked amid a storm of criticism — largely from people who had never seen it. “Gippergate” proved a black eye for CBS and topper Leslie Moonves. The mini eventually aired on Showtime.

He is survived by his wife Nancy and three of his four children. All four of Reagan’s children tried their hand at showbiz at one time or another. Son Michael is a radio talkshow host. Daughter Maureen, a writer, activist and occasional thesp, predeceased him. Son Ron is a thesp and TV show host and daughter Patti Davis a writer.

Today Reagan’s body will be taken to his presidential library and museum in Simi Valley for a private family service. His body will then lie in repose in the library’s main lobby for public closed casket visitation. On Wednesday, it will be flown to Washington, D.C., for a state funeral ceremony in Capitol Rotunda, after which the body will lie in state in Capitol Rotunda through Thursday. On Friday, following the national funeral service at Washington National Cathedral, Reagan will be flown back to California for a private internment service at the presidential library.

Sen. John Kerry has canceled all political events this week in deference to the passing of Ronald Reagan. “An Evening With John Kerry and Friends,” tonight’s skedded gala at Disney Hall to benefit the Democratic National Committee and the Kerry campaign, is postponed with a date to be determined.

(David S. Cohen and Army Archerd contributed to this report.)

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