One of the funnier exchanges that takes place in the 1985 blockbuster Back to the Future occurs when Dr Emmett Brown questions Marty’s statement that he is from the future: ‘Then tell me, future boy’, he says. ‘Who’s President of the United States in 1985?’ ‘Ronald Reagan’, Marty replies. ‘Ronald Reagan? The actor? Then who’s vice-president? Jerry Lewis? One can understand his incredulity. How could a dead-set B grade actor become the leader of the world’s most powerful nation? As they say – only in America.
It would be fair to say that Ronnie’s life was less than spectacular until about 1947. Born in Illinois, he became a lifeguard at high school, claiming later that he personally saved seventy seven souls from watery graves. According to him he actually kept score of his heroic deeds. At college he was in everything like pepper and salt; frat boy, President of the Student Body, cheerleader, footballer, you name it. He even broadcast Cubs games over the radio for the University of Iowa, and it was then that he picked up a Hollywood acting contract.
In 1940 he played opposite another bit player named Jane Wyman (pictured below) and the two married later that year. She would eventually go on to win an Oscar (for Johnny Belinda (1948). He wouldn’t. He did, however, gain some recognition playing George ‘the Gipper’ Gipp in Knute Rockne All American in 1940. His deathbed speech, ‘Win one for the Gipper’, became the stuff of legends in the good old USA. Why someone would waste his last words on a stupid football game beggars belief, but there you go.
Ronnie’s great cinematic moment came in 1941’s King’s Row, in which he portrayed a double amputee who, on awakening after his operation, gets to utter the immortal line, ‘Where’s the rest of me?’ Great line, actually. Unfortunately, as Wyman complained after their 1948 divorce, every time people were invited to their house, he would play the whole movie after dinner; time after time, after time…He also talked politics non-stop, she said, adding he was a ‘total dullard’. Evidently, divorce (like death) can be a blessing at times.
During the war Ronnie was put into the First Motion Picture Unit, an outfit that produced propaganda and training films when its members were not touring, selling War Bonds. Ronnie had dinner at home most nights, but he still got to wear the uniform. When he later ran for political office it helped to be able to say that ‘he served’. I actually wrote to him when I was a boy and an avid autograph hunter. He was Governor of California, yet he wrote back, telling me he was in the Seventh Cavalry Armored Division during World War Two. He omitted to mention his transfer to the FMPU, or the fact that he never left the States for the duration. Must have slipped his mind I guess. But at least he replied, which was nice of him.
In 1947, Ronnie and Walt Disney testified that the movie industry was under threat from communism. By then Reagan was President of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and he used his position’s considerable clout to advise the FBI of the pressing need for the government to take a ‘definite stand’, if it expected the motion picture people to ‘conduct any type of cleaning of their own house’. This ‘sanction’ granted by the SAG President gave the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) added impetus to go after suspected communists and left-wingers in Hollywood.
At around this time, as President of SAG, he and the equally unscrupulous (and equally greedy) vice president of the guild, (another second-rate actor at the wrong end of his movie career named Walter Pidgeon), managed to get a blanket waiver approved by the SAG committee that all but handed control of the industry to MCA and its head Lew Wasserman. And Ronnie’s reward? His own TV program General Electric Theater. He left SAG soon afterwards, but he would return at Wasserman’s behest seven years later and betray his fellow actors a second time.
1959 rolled around and actors were beginning to press for some kind of residuals deal from MCA. They quite rightly wanted some small recompense whenever the company sold one of their old movies to another network. Enter Ronnie for tenure number two as President of SAG. In his memoirs he stated that he did not want the SAG presidency a second time because ‘his career had suffered’ the first time around. That was a blatant lie, of course. Starring in and eventually directing G.E.T. had made him a rich man. And it would make him even richer.
To cut to the chase, he put together a welfare/pension plan (of sorts) for his fellow actors in exchange for them giving away ALL rights to ALL movies made prior to 1960! The studios, and Wasserman in particular, had kicked a massive goal, courtesy of Ronnie – again. He then promptly resigned the presidency of SAG to go into a joint production partnership with Wasserman at MCA. In 1987, it came to light that good old Ronnie had also been given 25% ownership of General Electric Theater after talks with Wasserman prior to the residuals rip-off. What a guy.
Lew Wasserman was a young man when all this happened, yet he would spend the next few decades using his money and influence to push Ronnie’s political career right into the White House. Between them they set the de-regulatory policies that have placed most of America’s entertainment into the hands of a bare half dozen entities. It would be accurate to suggest that without this unholy alliance there would be no Rupert Murdoch and News Corp today; no Disney empire either.
Back to 1949. Divorced from Wyman, Ronnie enjoyed life in Hollywood as a bachelor for a few years. At 39 years of age he seduced 18 year-old starlet Piper Laurie. Years later she would be less than flattering describing his bedroom repertoire in her biography. He met Nancy Davis (below), another B-grader, in 1949. She had a reputation as a girl ‘whose phone number was passed around a lot’. If anything, that was an understatement. Even her adopted son Michael said; ‘If Nancy knew that one day she would be First Lady, she would have cleaned up her act.’ Her known lovers included Spencer Tracy, Yul Brynner, Marlon Brando, Robert Stack, Milton Berle, Peter Lawford, Robert Walker and Clark Gable. For a while she hoped to marry Gable, but it never eventuated.
According to investigative journalist and biographer Kitty Kelley in her best-seller Nancy Reagan: An Unauthorized Biography (1991), Mrs Reagan’s trysts with Frank Sinatra continued even after she became First Lady. He would be let in a back door at the White House for 3-4 hour private ‘luncheons’ with Nancy. Staff said she left instructions for these visits that she was not to be disturbed ‘for anything. Not even if the President called’.
Back in March 1952, Ronnie and Nancy had married and 7 months later had become the proud parents of a daughter, Patti. The marriage, contrary to most Hollywood’s predictions, lasted until Ronnie’s death in 2004 at the age of 93. Nancy, meanwhile, soldiers on, well into her nineties. No doubt she will stand by the memory of her actor/president husband until the day she, too, heads off to that great casting couch in the sky. A great many of her fellow Americans will share her love and respect for their dead president. Presidents’ shortcomings tend to fade in retrospect for many people. But not for all of us.