U.S. Actor/Politician

Ronald Reagan lived in the public eye for more than fifty years as an actor and politician. He appeared in 53 Hollywood movies, from Love is on the Air (1937) to The Killers (1964). Never highly touted as an actor, his most acclaimed movie was King's Row (1942) while his favorite role was as George Gipp in Knute Rockne--All American (1940). He served as president of the Screen Actor's Guild from 1947 to 1952 and again in 1959 where he led the fight against communist infiltration in the film industry and brokered residual rights for actors.

Reagan made his debut on television 7 December 1950 as a detective on the CBS Airflyte Theater adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel. After a dozen appearances over the next four years on various shows, Reagan's big television break came when Taft Schreiber of MCA acquainted him with G.E. Theater. Reagan hosted this popular Sunday evening show from 1954 to 1962, starring in thirty-four episodes himself. Reagan was one of the first movie stars to see the potential of television and, as host, he introduced such Hollywood notables as Joan Crawford, Alan Ladd, and Fred Astaire to their television debuts. He also became a goodwill ambassador for G.E.--plugging G.E. products, meeting G.E. executives, and speaking to G.E. employees all over the country. This proved fine training for his future political career as he honed his speaking skills, fashioned his viewpoints, and gained exposure to middle-America.

In 1964, Reagan began a two-season stint as host of Death Valley Days which he had to relinquish when he announced his candidacy for governor of California in January 1966. During his terms as Governor of California (1966-74), Reagan made frequent televised appearances on Report to the People.

The hinge between Reagan's acting and political careers swung on a nationally televised speech, "A Time for Choosing," on 27 October 1964. This speech for Barry Goldwater, which David Broder hailed as "the most successful political debut since William Jennings Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic convention with his 'Cross of Gold' speech," brought in over one million dollars for the Republican candidate and marked the beginning of Reagan's reign as the leading conservative for the next twenty-five years.

By 1980, the year Reagan was elected president for the first of his two terms, more people received their political information from television than from any other source. Reagan's experience as an actor on the screen and on television gave him an enormous advantage as politics moved fully into its television era. His mastery of the television medium earned for him the title, "the great communicator." He perfected the art of "going public," appealing to the American public on television to put pressure on Congress to support his policies. The rhetoric of this "prime-time president" suited television perfectly. Whether delivering a State of the Union address, eulogizing the crew of the Challenger, or speaking directly to the nation about his strategic defense initiative he captured the audience's attention by appealing to shared values, creating a vision of a better future, telling stories of heroes, evoking memories of a mythic past, exuding a spirit of "can-do" optimism, and converting complex issues into simple language the people could understand and enjoy.

He understood that television is more like the oral tradition committed to narratival communication than like the literate tradition committed to linear, factual communication. As Denton puts it, in video politics, "how something is said is more important than what is said." Reagan surmounted his numerous gaffes and factual inaccuracies until the Iran-Contra affair, when it became apparent that his style could not extricate him from the suspicion that he knew more than he was telling the American public.

His administration also greatly expanded the Office of Communication to coordinate White House public relations, stage important announcements, control press conferences, and create visual productions such as That's America, shown at the 1984 Republican convention. Image management and manipulation increased in importance because of television. Reagan's aides perfected a new political art form--the visual press release--whereby Reagan could take credit for new housing starts while visiting a construction site in Fort Worth or announce a new welfare initiative during a visit to a nursing home.

Ronald Reagan was an average television actor but a peerless television politician. Both Reagan and his staff set the standard by which future administrations will be judged. As Schmuhl argues in Statecraft and Stagecraft, Ronald Reagan represented not only the rhetorical presidency, but the theatrical presidency as well.

-D. Joel Wiggins


Ronald Reagan

RONALD (WILSON) REAGAN. Born in Tampico, Illinois, U.S.A., 6 February 1911. Eureka College, Illinois, B.A. in economics and sociology 1932. Married: 1) Jane Wyman, 1940 (divorced, 1948); children: Maureen and Michael; 2) Nancy Davis, 1952; children: Patti and Ron. Served in U.S. Army Air Force, 1942-45. Wrote sports column for Des Moines, Iowa newspaper; sports announcer, radio station WOC, Davenport, Iowa, 1932-37; in films, 1937-1964; contract with Warner Brothers, 1937; first lead role in big-budget film was in King's Row, 1941; president, Screen Actors Guild, 1947-52 and 1959; in television, 1953-66, starting as host of The Orchid Awards, 1953-54; governor of California, 1966-74; U.S. president, 1980-88.


1953-54 The Orchid Awards (host)
1954-62 General Electric Theatre (host and program                                                   supervisor)
1965-66 Death Valley Days (host)


1964 The Killers (released as theatrical feature due to                          violent content)


Love is in the Air, 1937; Hollywood Hotel, 1937; Swing Your Lady, 1938; Sergeant Murphy, 1938; Accidents Will Happen, 1938; The Cowboy from Brooklyn, 1938; Boy Meets Girl, 1938; Girls On Probation, 1938; Brother Rat, 1938; Going Places, 1939; Secret Service of the Air, 1939; Dark Victory, 1939; Code of the Secret Service, 1939; Naughty But Nice, 1939; Hell's Kitchen, 1939; Angels Wash Their Faces, 1939; Smashing the Money Ring, 1939; Brother Rat and a Baby, 1940; An Angel From Texas, 1940; Murder in the Air, 1940; Knute Rockne--All American, 1940; Tugboat Annie Smith Sails Again, 1940; Santa Fe Trail, 1940; The Bad Men, 1941; Million Dollar Baby, 1941; Nine Lives Are Not Enough, 1941; International Squadron, 1941; King's Row, 1941; Juke Girl, 1942; Desperate Journey, 1942; This Is the Army, 1943; Stallion Road, 1947; That Hagen Girl, 1947; The Voice of the Turtle, 1947; John Loves Mary, 1949; Night Unto Night, 1949; The Girl From Jones Beach, 1949; It's a Great Feeling, 1949; The Hasty Heart, 1950; Louisa, 1950; Storm Warning, 1951; Bedtime for Bonzo, 1951; The Last Outpost, 1951; Hong Kong, 1952; She's Working Her Way Through College, 1952; The Winning Team, 1952; Tropic Zone, 1953; Law and Order, 1953; Prisoner of War, 1954; Cattle Queen of Montana, 1954; Tennessee's Partner, 1955; Hellcats of the Navy, 1957; The Young Doctors (narrated), 1961; The Killers, 1964.


Where's the Rest of Me?, with Richard Hubler. New York: Dyell, Sloan and Pierce, 1965.

The Reagan Wit, edited by Bill Adler. New York: Thornwood, 1981.

Ronald Reagan: An American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.


Barilleaux, Ryan J. The Post-modern Presidency: The Office after Ronald Reagan. New York: Praeger, 1988.

Cannon, Lou. Reagan. New York: Putnam's, 1982.

Deaver, Michael, with Mickey Herskowitz. Behind the Scenes: In Which the Author Talks About Ronald and Nancy Reagan...and Himself. New York: William Morrow, 1987.

Denton, Robert E., Jr. The Primetime Presidency of Ronald Reagan. New York: Praeger, 1988.

Erickson, Paul D. Reagan Speaks: The Making of an American Myth. New York: New York University Press, 1985.

Gold, Ellen Reid. "Ronald Reagan and the Oral Tradition." Central States Speech Journal (West Lafayette, Indiana), 1988.

Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Kernal, Samuel. Going Public. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1986.

Kiewe, Amos, and Davis W. Houck. A Shining City on a Hill: Ronald Reagan's Economic Rhetoric, 1951-1989. New York: Praeger, 1991.

Leamer, Laurence. Make-believe: The Story of Nancy and Ronald Reagan. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.

McClelland, Doug. Hollywood on Ronald Reagan: Friends and Enemies Discuss Our President, the Actor. Winchester, Massachusetts: Faber and Faber, 1983.

McClure, A.F., C.D. Rice, and W.T. Stewart, editors. Ronald Reagan: His First career; A bibliography of the Movie Years. Studies in American History, vol. 1. Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen, 1988.

Pearce, Barnett, and Michael Weiler. Reagan and Public Discourse in America. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992.

Schmuhl, Robert. Statecraft and Stagecraft: American Politics in the Age of Personality. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990.

Stuckey, Mary E. Getting Into the Game: The Pre-presidential Politics of Ronald Reagan. New York: Praeger, 1989.

_______________. Playing the Game: The Presidential Rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. New York: Praeger, 1990.

_______________. The President as Interpreter-in-Chief. Chatham, New Jersey: Chatham House, 1991.

Thomas, Tony. The films of Ronald Reagan. Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel, 1980.


See also General Electric Theater; U.S. Presidency and Television