The making of a president
Inside the White House
'The Great Communicator'
A Life in Photographs

The making of a president

Hollywood beckons, and a young man goes West

As host of TV's "General Electric Theater" in the 1950s, Reagan honed his political skills  

In 1937, the young Ronald "Dutch" Reagan was working as a play-by-play sports commentator, but he yearned to become an actor. Hollywood was at the height of its glamour, and the dream of big-screen stardom was tantalizing to a small-town Midwesterner who had grown up playing the lead roles in school plays.

When a musician friend suggested that Reagan see her agent, he went West to try his luck. Within a week of arriving in Hollywood, Reagan managed to land a screen test with Warner Bros. Studios, but even he was surprised when they offered him a seven-year contract.

Years later, Reagan recalled his first day on the set: "Nothing I'd ever experienced ... nothing I'd been through had ever produced in me the kind of jitters I felt when I stepped onto Stage Eight at Warner Bros. that morning."

Those jitters quickly disappeared. He made nearly 20 movies during the next three years. Although he never got past what he called being "the Errol Flynn of B pictures," Reagan did appear in several A-list films, landing the part of a small-town playboy in "Kings Row" (1942) and the coveted role of Notre Dame football player George Gipp in "Knute Rockne, All American" (1940).

Ronald and Nancy Reagan, circa 1950  

When the country entered World War II, Reagan joined the Army Air Corps, but he never saw combat. Instead, he used his talents to produce and appear in more than 400 military training films.

Hollywood honed Reagan's charisma, giving him an ease and naturalness before the cameras. It also shaped his family life. During the filming of "Brother Rat" (1938), the 27-year-old Reagan was introduced to the actress Jane Wyman, who would become his first wife. Fan magazines portrayed the pair as "the ideal American couple."

In 1947, Reagan was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild. Hollywood was in turmoil, with unions battling studios, and the threat of Communist infiltration bringing Washington investigations in the industry. Reagan testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, presenting SAG as an anti-Communist, 100 percent American organization.

The experience fanned his political ambitions, a newfound obsession that moved him into a different world and distanced him from Wyman, who eventually divorced him.

Several years later, a director told Reagan about a young actress, Nancy Davis, who was upset that her name was mistakenly associated with a Communist front group. Reagan came to her aid and the sparks flew. Their affair ended in marriage on March 4, 1952.

Voices: Remembering Reagan's Hollywood years

NEXT: A second act in politics >>

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