As the 40th president of the United States, the former movie star was called the “Great Communicator” for his ability to get through to ordinary Americans and give them hope and optimism for their own future and that of their country. Despite his lifelong opposition to “big” government, he was credited with restoring faith in the U.S. government and the presidency after a long era of disillusionment in the wake of Nixon, Vietnam and economic hardship under Carter. But before his years of Hollywood stardom, and long before Washington, Ronald Reagan was born on this day in 1911, in Tampico, a small town in northwestern Illinois.
Though his family was poor, Reagan later remembered his as an idyllic childhood. After playing football in high school and college (at Eureka University), he graduated during the Great Depression with few job prospects. He soon began working in radio in Iowa, broadcasting for football and other sports. While on a spring training trip with the Chicago Cubs in Los Angeles, Reagan got in touch with a former colleague at WHO in Des Moines, who connected him with a Hollywood agent, and in 1937 Warner Brothers offered Reagan a seven-year contract starting at $200 per week. His first role was far from a stretch: He played a radio reporter in the 1937 B-movie Love Is on the Air, and the Hollywood Reporter called him “a natural.”
After a few years as what he later called “the Errol Flynn of the B pictures,” Reagan won the role he would become known for, the football player George Gipp of Notre Dame University in Knute Rockne – All-American. The film told the story of the legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne (played by Pat O’Brien), who died in a plane crash in 1931. Gipp was the walk-on who became Rockne’s star player and died of a throat infection two weeks after his final game. As Reagan later recounted in his memoir, he convinced the filmmakers (who wanted a taller, heavier actor for the part) that he could play Gipp by showing them a picture of himself in his college football uniform. During his political career, Reagan would reprise the now-immortal line “Win one for the Gipper” from his deathbed scene in the film.
In addition to making more than 50 films, Reagan became heavily involved in the Screen Actors Guild during his years in Hollywood, serving six terms as its president and leading the union through some of the most volatile years in the movie industry. In 1947, when accusations of Communism were running rampant in Hollywood, Reagan testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and refused to name names of suspected Communist sympathizers (although an FBI file later revealed that he had in fact named people in secret). Around this same time, Reagan’s personal life was in turmoil: His wife, the actress Jane Wyman, divorced him in 1948; his increasing involvement in the Screen Actors Guild was reportedly mentioned as a factor in the divorce. Reagan married Nancy Davis, also an actress, in 1952; they had two children, Patricia and Ronald. (Reagan and Wyman also had a daughter, Maureen, and adopted a son, Michael.) Nancy Reagan would become her husband’s closest confidante and adviser during his future political career.
In the early 1950s, Reagan became familiar to a much wider audience when he began hosting the television program General Electric Theater; he also traveled the country giving speeches as the GE company spokesman. Though he was a registered Democrat during his years in Hollywood, he changed his political affiliation to Republican in 1962. Two years later, Reagan made his grand entrance on the political stage with a much-publicized speech at a fundraiser for Barry Goldwater, that year’s Republican presidential candidate. In Kings Row (1941), Reagan had played a small-town hero whose legs are amputated. He considered it his finest film and took a line from it–”Where’s the rest of me?”–for the title of his first autobiography, published in 1965, before his run for governor of California. The following year, Reagan defeated the incumbent governor of California, Pat Brown, by close to a million votes, taking the next step on the road to the White House.
At 69, Reagan was the oldest man in history to take office as U.S. president. His career in Hollywood, thought to be a weakness at the beginning of his life in politics, turned out to be arguably one of his biggest assets. As president, he projected a comforting optimism and weathered setbacks with such success that he became known as the “Teflon president.” His foreign policy legacy, tarnished after the Iran-Contra affair, was redeemed in the eyes of many by the end of the Cold War and the opening of relations with the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. The long-term success of his sweeping tax cuts and “Reaganomics” may have been debatable, but he managed to maintain his popularity throughout, leaving the White House in the hands of his loyal vice president, George H.W. Bush, in 1988 and maintaining a high approval rating. Six years later, Reagan made the sobering announcement that he had Alzheimer’s disease, which would end his public career. He died on June 5, 2004, at the age of 93.