Hollywood to Sacramento
Reagan, shown here in 1952, starred in more than 50 films and was also a spokesman for General Electric Corporation
An actor finds his voice
Ronald Reagan came to Hollywood in 1937
as a small-town Democrat with little more than a good voice and natural charisma. He emerged three decades later as a staunch conservative with a national reputation.
Over two decades in Hollywood, the tall, tanned Reagan achieved a small measure of fame and fortune, but -- by his own admission -- he never became a top-tier star.
Like the lifeguard he was for so long, Reagan loved to play the hero. He starred in more than 50 films, but in only one (a made-for-television film called "The Killers") was he the villain. Instead, he preferred to play upstanding, all-American men -- characters with which he had identified since childhood.
One of Reagan's favorite nicknames in the White House came from the 1940 film "Knute Rockne -- All American," in which he played Notre Dame football star George "The Gipper" Gipp. In Washington, he used the character's line, "Win one for the Gipper," to rally Republican teammates.
Reagan considered his performance as Drake McHugh in the 1941 film "King's Row" to be his finest. Shocked to discover a vengeful surgeon has amputated his legs, he shouts, "Where's the rest of me?" He later used that line as the title of a 1965 autobiography.
Reagan starred in "Hellcats of the Navy" in 1957
Later, Reagan played opposite an ape in the 1951 movie "Bedtime for Bonzo"; he liked to joke that he was upstaged by his co-star.
Reagan also owed his family life to Hollywood. In 1940, he married Jane Wyman, a promising young actress. The next year, Jane gave birth to a girl, Maureen Elizabeth. In 1945, they adopted a son, Michael Edward. Together, they were the model Hollywood family. Or so it seemed.
Reagan shared the benefits of his Hollywood success with his parents. He moved them from Dixon to California, bought them their first house, and gave his father a job fit for the proud parent he was -- handling his son's fan mail.
While delivering lines on-screen for a living, Reagan was also becoming interested in politics off-screen.
As a wary Hollywood became suspicious of Communist infiltration in the 1940s, Reagan's political beliefs -- first influenced by his Democrat father and by his Depression-era hero, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- were changing. He began to shift to the right, becoming more and more conservative.
During World War II, Reagan's poor eyesight kept him from combat, and he was assigned to make military training films. He was discharged as a Army captain in 1945, but not, he later said, before developing a disdain for the inefficiency of the military's bureaucracy.
Reagan also became increasingly anti-communist. He originally had dismissed the threat, but gradually became convinced it was real.
The charismatic Reagan began speaking out against fascism and communism, and became an outspoken ally of the anti-communism movement.
In 1947, he appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, naming groups within Hollywood that he believed were "following the tactics we associate with the Communist Party."
That same year, Reagan was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), a role he used to help defend colleagues he believed to be wrongly blacklisted.
"I do not believe that at any time, the Communist has been able to use the motion picture screen as a sounding board for his philosophy or ideology," he said.
Reagan's increasing role in SAG and his obsession with anti-communism took a toll on his personal life. In 1948, his marriage to Jane Wyman ended; she was unhappy with his growing political activism.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan, circa 1950
Deeply depressed over the divorce and unhappy with his flagging movie career, Reagan continued his association with SAG. He served as president of the group from 1947-52 and again from 1959-60, when he led a long and successful strike against studios to win pay for actors when their movies were put on television.
It was also through SAG that he met Nancy Davis, a young actress whose name had mistakenly appeared on Hollywood lists as a communist sympathizer. In 1949, she appealed to the SAG president for help in clearing her name.
Reagan was enchanted by the intelligent young woman. They began courting, and married in 1952. Patricia Ann was born that same year; Ronald Prescott came along six years later.
From the silver screen to the small screen
After 17 years in Hollywood, with choice roles no longer coming his way, Reagan turned to the new medium of television. From 1954-62, he hosted the weekly CBS series "The General Electric Theater." As spokesman for the company, he traveled extensively, speaking to thousands of G.E. plant workers across the country.
At first little more than entertaining Hollywood anecdotes, Reagan's speeches soon turned to the problems of big government and rising taxes -- issues with which many working Americans identified.
Over the years, the speeches gave Reagan the opportunity to hone his skills as a public speaker and gauge the sentiment of the nation. In 1960, he campaigned as a Democrat for Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy. In 1962, the same year that Reagan registered as a Republican, he left G.E., emerging as a recognized conservative spokesman.
Finding a new voice
Campaigning for Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 while host of "Death Valley Days," his last Hollywood job, Reagan was asked to film a then-novel 30-minute television campaign commercial, a repeat of a speech he had delivered at a Republican fundraiser earlier that year.
The speech, "A Time for Choosing" was a condemnation of big government and a call for tax reform, themes that would become Reagan's conservative mantra for the next 24 years.
"There can be no security anywhere in the free world if there is no fiscal and economic stability in the United States," Reagan told the television audience. "Those who ask us to trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state are architects of a policy of accommodation."
Time magazine called the speech the "one bright spot in a dismal campaign." Goldwater ultimately lost, but the speech brought record contributions to the Republican Party and put Reagan squarely the national political spotlight.
Impressed with the impassioned speech and the charismatic man who made it, Reagan was pursuaded by several well-heeled Califonia Republicans to run for office. With the backing of California power brokers he met through his Hollywood contacts and work with the Republican Party, Reagan threw his hat into the governor's race.
He ran against five candidates in 1966 to win the Republican nomination. Californians embraced Reagan's genial image as a cowboy coming to their state's rescue with traditional values. His friendly, down-to-earth manner came across in the campaign speeches he wrote himself.
Months later, despite his lack of experience, Ronald Wilson Reagan beat out two-time Democratic incumbent Pat Brown to win the race by almost a million votes.
Ronald, Nancy and their children set off for Sacramento, and a life in the public eye. The man who had never held public office was about to learn the business of governance at the helm of the nation's most populous state.
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