Happy Birthday Number 40: Remembering & Celebrating Ronald Reagan’s Acting Career

This weekend marks Ronald Reagan’s 110th birthday. Born February 6, 1911, Reagan was Number 40 in the line of American Presidents, his two terms in office opening and closing the decade of the 80s (1981-1989). It’s easy to think of him only in a political sense, but Reagan had a prior career, too.

Cattle Queen of Montana – 1952

In Film!

In fact, in the first Back to the Future movie, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox, but you knew that) tries to convince 1955 “Doc” Emmet Brown (Christopher Lloyd) that he’s from the future. Marty remarks about Reagan being president in 1985, only for Doc to take it as hysteric ravings from an addled teen, remarking skeptically “Ronald Reagan, the actor?!” before going into a tirade.

Yes, Ronald Reagan was an actor before his political endeavors became primary. With 83 credits to his name, Reagan’s career as a thespian can be described as substantial, if not prolific, and his work ethic was considerable from his starting point with Love Is On The Air in 1937.

A photographic memory, or semi-photographic memory helped the scripts, for sure!

Reagan (26 years of age) introduces a scene from his film debut (1937)

Lou Cannon’s 2004 article for the Washington Post titled “Actor, Governor, President, Icon” puts it best:

‘Reagan made his film debut in June 1937 as a crusading radio announcer in a minor crime movie, “Love Is On the Air.” During the next two decades, he made 52 films, concluding with “Hellcats of the Navy” in 1957, in which the leading lady was his second wife, Nancy Davis. A 53rd film, “The Killers” — the only movie in which Reagan portrayed a villain — was made for television in 1964 but was ultimately released in movie theaters because it was considered too violent for the small screen.’

Many who do remember Reagan’s career, tend to brood upon the famous (or perhaps infamous) Bedtime For Bonzo (1951) which predated his more successful venture the following year with Barbara Stanwyck in Cattle Queen of Montana (1952). The wild premise of a psychiatrist trying to prove nurture over nature to resolve himself of the sins of a convict father through parenting a chimpanzee (Bonzo) is hysterical.

Bedtime For Bonzo – 1951

But the film didn’t stay in 1951, it followed him in the form of sideways pokes in various media, the show ALF (1986-1990) making a quick poke at it season one, fourth episode Pennsylvania 6-5000 when the film is mentioned after ALF asks about nuclear bombs.

Reagan even had it screened at Camp David.

Alzheimer’s would eventually claim Reagan’s memory, and he would pass in 2004, but his political legacy cemented him in the memory of Americans. We mustn’t forget that Ronald Reagan served Americans as a gifted actor before he served us as a politician, entertaining the country first, and then leading us out of the tumultuous 70s and eventually bringing about the end of the Cold War.

“Great Communicator” indeed!


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