Ronald Reagan, who used his Hollywood career as a springboard into politics more successfully than any actor before or since, died Saturday at 93 at his home in Bel-Air, Calif. The former U.S. President succumbed to pneumonia, after having suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for a decade, according to a statement released by his wife of 52 years, former first lady Nancy Reagan, who had been a Hollywood starlet herself before her husband entered politics.
Reagan entered show business in the early 1930s as a radio sportscaster. Covering the Chicago Cubs training camp in California in 1937, he was discovered by Warner Bros. and soon made the first of his 50 movies, playing a radio announcer in ”Love Is on the Air.” While he was never an A-list actor, he was a reliable contract player for the studio, which almost cast him in the role that eventually went to Humphrey Bogart in ”Casablanca.” Instead, he appeared in such memorable films as 1940’s ”Knute Rockne: All-American” (where his role as ill-fated footballer George Gipp earned him the lifelong nickname ”The Gipper”), 1942’s ”Kings Row” (where he delivered his best performance, as a double amputee), and 1951’s ”Bedtime for Bonzo” (where his costar was a chimpanzee). He married two Hollywood actresses: Oscar winner Jane Wyman, his costar in 1938’s ”Brother Rat,” his wife from 1940 to 1949, and the former Nancy Davis, his wife since 1952 and his costar in 1957’s submarine drama ”Hellcats of the Navy.”
Reagan got his first taste of political power as the president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1947 to 1952. During his tenure at SAG, he oversaw the union’s passage of a waiver that allowed his agent, Lew Wasserman, to serve as a TV producer as well, thereby changing the economics of the fledgling TV industry and helping turn Wasserman’s MCA, the future parent company of Universal Studios and Universal Music, into one of the world’s largest media companies. He also testified as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Hollywood blacklist, an event that helped turn him from a Democrat to a Republican.
As his movie career waned in the 1950s and ’60s, he found success on TV as the host of ”Death Valley Days” and the drama anthology ”General Electric Theater.” It was in his capacity as GE pitchman, traveling the country, that he honed the oratorical talents that would serve him well in politics. In 1964, he made his last movie, ”The Killers,” in which he played a rare villainous role. By this time, he was a full-time Republican political aspirant, and in 1966, nearly 40 years before Arnold Schwarzenegger, he was elected to the first of his two four-year terms as governor of California.
During Reagan’s presidency, from 1981 to 1989, he brought Hollywood glamour to the White House, in the form of visiting pals like Frank Sinatra. More importantly, he brought to bear all the techniques he had learned in show business — including iconic image-making, camera-friendliness, homespun speech, pithy sound bites, and especially humor — toward getting out his administration’s message, earning himself the nickname ”The Great Communicator.” Even two decades later, well into his decline from Alzheimer’s disease, his family continued to exercise tight control over that message, helping derail CBS’ 2003 miniseries ”The Reagans” after hearing advance word that it portrayed the first couple in an unflattering light. (After a well-orchestrated backlash, CBS reedited the movie and dumped it onto Showtime.)