Ronald Reagan may have created for himself the greatest leading role any actor ever conceived, but in Hollywood, he was strictly a supporting actor. (When he ran for governor of Calfornia in 1966, his old boss, Warner Bros. chief Jack Warner, said: ”No, no! James Stewart for governor! Ronald Reagan for his best friend!”) Still, the supporting niche required him to be sturdy and dependable, which is the kind of actor he was in his more than 50 films. Though Reagan’s movie career was marked with novelties (getting spattered with oatmeal by a chimp in ”Bedtime for Bonzo”), oddities (creepily romancing a teenage Shirley Temple in ”That Hagen Girl”), and knockoffs (submarine drama ”Hellcats of the Navy,” his only movie with wife Nancy) — the Reagan catalogue is also full of sharp, memorable turns in roles that helped other actors shine. Here are five worth seeking out.
Dark Victory (1939) In one of Bette Davis’ most celebrated tearjerkers, Reagan is Alec Hamm, a funny, boozy playboy who diffidently woos Davis’ socialite. (As was typical for Reagan, he doesn’t get the girl, losing her to leading man George Brent.) Reagan certainly does a better job here than Humphrey Bogart, miscast as a thick-brogued Irish jockey. Maybe that’s why, a couple of years later, Warner Bros. nearly gave Reagan the role in ”Casablanca” that ultimately went to Bogart.
Knute Rockne: All-American (1940) In 1952, Reagan would star in another male sports weepie, ”The Winning Team,” as epileptic pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, but this one gave Reagan his most famous role, as ill-fated Notre Dame gridiron great George Gipp. Yes, you’ve heard it a million times, especially as parodied in ”Airplane!”, but we dare you to listen to Reagan deliver the ”Win one for the Gipper” speech without misting up.
Kings Row (1942) Reagan gave what critics — and probably Reagan himself — considered his best performance in this lavish melodrama about the scandals of a turn-of-the-century small town. Reagan called the film ”my first experience, I suppose, with an acting chore that got down inside and kind of wrung me out.” He plays irreverent playboy Drake McHugh whose liaison with the daughter of the town surgeon leads the vindictive doctor to cut off his legs after Drake is injured in an accident. Reagan’s famously horrified reaction upon waking up to discover the amputations — ”Where’s the rest of me?” — became the title of his 1965 autobiography.
Storm Warning (1951) Reagan may have been known for espousing small-town values, but in movies like ”Kings Row” and this one, small towns were festering with violence and corruption. Here, Reagan plays an idealistic district attorney who seeks the help of reluctant witness Ginger Rogers in ridding his town of violent Klansmen. Aside from the film’s whitewashed racial politics (there’s not a single black character in the movie), it’s a surprisingly gritty and hard-hitting film, grounded by Reagan with the calm, earnest demeanor that will seem familiar to viewers from his terms in real-life public office.
The Killers (1964) This remake of the 1946 Burt Lancaster crime drama was initially made for TV but was considered too violent for the small screen and was released to theaters instead. Reagan plays the only villainous role of his career, and he plays it shockingly well. (You’ll gasp when his gangster slaps Angie Dickinson around.) Despite the always-taut direction of Don Siegel (”Dirty Harry”) and strong performances by Reagan, Dickinson, Lee Marvin, and John Cassavetes, the movie wasn’t a hit, and Reagan never acted again. If the movie had been a success, it could have changed history.