While not as well known as some other actors of his generation, we here at the Monkey nevertheless pause to note the birthday of Ronald Reagan, who would be 100 today.
Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois, on February 6, 1911. After earning a bachelor of arts degree at Eureka College, he got his start in radio covering Iowa Hawkeye football games, then later "recreating" Chicago Cubs baseball games for WHO radio in Des Moines. In 1937, while traveling in California with the Cubs, he took a screen test and signed a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers.
Born a month before Jean Harlow, Reagan made his film debut in Love Is On The Air four months after her death.
He gave what is generally regarded as his best performance in 1942's Kings Row in which his perfectly healthy legs are amputated by a sadistic surgeon. Reagan's line "Where's the rest of me?!" became the title of his 1965 autobiography.
Aside from Kings Row and the notorious Bedtime For Bonzo, in which Reagan played second fiddle to a chimpanzee (hey, wait a minute—we like chimps here at the Monkey!), his best remembered role was as George Gipp, the dying football star in Knute Rockne, All American. "Sometime when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper."
The nickname stuck with him for the rest of his life.
Personally, my favorite Reagan film role was his last. In the 1964 film The Killers, Reagan played a particularly nasty heavy who orchestrates a robbery, double crosses John Cassavettes and slaps Angie Dickinson around. It was the only "bad guy" role of Reagan's career and he didn't much care for it, but it was the best acting he had done in years and it makes me wonder how his career might have played out if he had taken on more roles like it.
A staunch supporter of New Deal president Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan got involved in politics early and in 1947 he was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild, serving five years in that post during the tumultuous anti-communist McCarthy era. (He was again elected president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1959, serving a total of seven years in that position.) Ironically, Reagan's acting career sagged as his political career took off and he was mostly relegated to B-Westerns in the 1950s.
As the decade wore on, Reagan's politics became more conservative and in 1962 he formally joined the Republican Party. "I didn't leave the Democratic Party," he claimed at the time, "The party left me."
Reagan was never nominated for an Oscar and retired from acting in 1965. Oh, and then he went on to other things—governor of California, president of the United States, that sort of thing. An assessment of those years, I leave to you.
Reagan was married twice, to Jane Wyman from 1940 to 1948, then to Nancy Davis from 1952 until his death in 2004. In his latter years, Reagan suffered from Alzheimers and died at the age of 93.