Of all the roles of Ronald Reagan’s career, the most intriguing has always been the one that got away. If Reagan (who died June 5) had actually been cast in the lead of ”Casablanca” — as Warner Bros. famously announced in a preproduction press release for the 1942 film — how different would the world be today? Would the movie still be considered a classic? Would it have made Reagan a bigger star? Would Humphrey Bogart have become the 40th President?
History, of course, works in mysterious ways. That Reagan failed to become a major movie star — and ended up, in the 1950s, slumming in the ghetto of early television — might just have been the twist of fate that pushed him into politics and propelled him toward the White House. Certainly the experience served him well once he got there. John F. Kennedy may have been the first Oval Office occupant to recognize the power of the cathode-ray tube, but Reagan was the one who mastered the medium. He was, quite literally, the first made-for-TV President. And America hasn’t been the same since.
It’s hard to recall now, but there was a time when politics and entertainment existed in separate, unique universes. Before Reagan, the idea of an actor becoming Commander-in-Chief was a joke (in fact, in the 1960s, Reagan-for-President zingers would pop up on ”Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”). But in the post-Reagan world, a Hollywood background can actually smooth the way for a shot at a Congressional seat, not to mention the governor’s mansion in California. Argue all you want about Reagan’s legacy — his ending the Cold War, his runaway deficits — there’s no denying he left both Hollywood and Washington radically changed worlds. Never in U.S. history has a mere actor so drastically altered the political landscape — at least not since John Wilkes Booth.
It might have turned out differently if his luck as a film actor had been a little better. And there were moments when Reagan came close to making it as a Hollywood heavyweight. His performance as a playboy whose legs are amputated by a sadistic surgeon in 1942’s ”Kings Row” helped that picture earn three Oscar nominations (Reagan would steal a line of dialogue from the movie, ”Where’s the rest of me?”, as the title of his 1965 autobiography). Earlier, in 1940, he had landed the plum role of doomed Notre Dame football hero George Gipp in ”Knute Rockne — All American” (a line from that film, ”Win just one for the Gipper,” would become one of his most enduring campaign slogans). But the rest of the 50-plus movies Reagan made in his three-decade career are a lot less memorable. Indeed, the most famous — the one costarring a chimp named Bonzo — became the punchline that defined his big-screen mediocrity.
Luckily for him, the small screen was just beginning to take off — and at that time television wasn’t too picky about its stars. In 1954, he accepted a gig as host of ”General Electric Theater,” one of the dramatic anthology shows that dotted the fledgling airwaves back then. By Hollywood standards, it wasn’t a glamorous job — he introduced the performances and hawked appliances during breaks — but it turned out to be a pivotal one for politics. As a GE spokesman, he delivered hundreds of morale-boosting speeches every year to company workers across the country — speeches filled with corporate-approved warnings about big government and the Communist menace — and discovered he had a gift for it. Others made the same discovery, like Republican lightning rod Barry Goldwater, who helped woo Reagan to his party in 1962 and invited him to give more speeches during Goldwater’s 1964 presidential run.