Ronald Reagan - Acting career
Broadway and Hollywood, Reagan recalled, seemed "as inaccessible as outer space." So after graduation he decided to look for a job closer to home, in radio. After an unsuccessful search for work in Chicago, he applied for a position as a sports announcer at station WOC in Davenport, Iowa, about seventy-five miles from Dixon. He got the job by impressing the station manager with a vivid description, entirely from memory, of a Eureka College football game. His skill and enthusiasm won him a growing reputation and, soon, a position as chief sports announcer on WHO, a much larger station in Des Moines. Dutch Reagan quickly became one of the most popular sportscasters in Iowa. His first love was football, but the heart of his job was broadcasting Chicago Cubs baseball games. WHO could not afford to send him to Wrigley Field, so he relied on the running accounts of the games provided by the wire services and extemporized the rest. Reagan modeled his broadcasting on such accomplished and popular myth-makers as Graham McNamee and Grantland Rice—the leading figures in a generation of sports journalists to whom accuracy was far less important than color and uplift. Reagan was a success as a broadcaster because he was skilled at creating appealing fantasies and making effective use of anecdotes. His radio experiences reinforced the storytelling talents his friends and family had already recognized; it also reinforced his tendency to embellish events for dramatic effect.
In the spring of 1937, Reagan accompanied the Chicago Cubs to their spring training camp in southern California, a trip he arranged in order to explore a possible movie career. His good looks and confi-dent manner attracted the attention of an agent, who set up a screen test for him with Warner Brothers. The studio was impressed with Reagan and offered him a seven-year contract starting at $200 a week—many times his salary in Des Moines. Reagan promptly accepted. Six months later, he brought his parents to California to live with him.
Reagan did not soon become a star, but he worked steadily and achieved a series of small successes playing leads in B movies and minor parts in more significant films. His early screen image did not differ greatly from his own personality: good-natured, easygoing, and sincere. The studio considered him a dependable actor who did whatever he was told. In 1939, he was cast in the film version of Brother Rat , a Broadway play. It was his most substantial role in a major film yet, but its chief significance for Reagan was that he played opposite the actress Jane Wyman, then in the final stages of a divorce. By the time filming ended, they were engaged. They married in January 1940 and had two children, Maureen, born in 1941, and Michael, whom the couple adopted in 1945, a few days after his birth.
So far, Reagan had moved through his movie career relatively passively, taking the parts he was offered and seldom complaining. But Wyman pressed him to be more assertive, and in 1940 he pursued the part of George Gipp, a famous Notre Dame football player and an important character in the Warner Brothers feature Knute Rockne—All American . Reagan was not yet a "name player," and some studio executives resisted his request. But his enthusiasm for the role and his background as a sports announcer finally won him the part. The success of the film, and the critical acclaim Reagan received for it, propelled his career. He began to receive better parts, and his performances in such front-rank films as King's Row (1941) and Desperate Journey (1942) earned him more critical praise.
His growing success also won him a series of deferments from military service (at the request of Warner Brothers) once the United States entered World War II, and then—after he was called up and commissioned an officer in the cavalry—an assignment with an army film unit. He spent the war in California making army training movies at a military base in Los Angeles, with time off to make feature films at Warner Brothers (among them the successful 1943 tribute to the military, This Is the Army ). Much of the time, he lived at home with his family. Despite his later claims to the contrary, he never left the country and never saw combat. But he cooperated with studio public relations efforts to portray him as a soldier, who, like other soldiers, left his family to go "off to war." Feature stories described Wyman bravely carrying on, raising the children and maintaining the household while her man was away. Newsreels and magazine photos depicted Reagan "coming home" for leaves and visits. Reagan later sometimes seemed actually to have believed the ruse. Even decades later, he liked to talk about "coming back from the war," like other veterans, eager to take up family life again (a life that in his case had hardly been interrupted).
Reagan's postwar acting career never regained the momentum it had enjoyed in the early 1940s. He had some occasional successes (among them The Hasty Heart in 1949), but he found himself working more often now in minor roles or minor films. Jane Wyman's career, in the meantime, was flourishing, and her absorption with it contributed to what were already growing tensions within the marriage. The couple divorced in 1948.
As his career and his marriage languished, Reagan had begun to become active in politics. His first vehicle was the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the film actors' union. Reagan had been active in SAG since his first months in Hollywood, and his involvement grew with his marriage to Wyman, who was also an important figure in the organization. In 1946, he chaired a union strike committee and demonstrated an energy and a toughness that his SAG colleagues had not previously seen. In 1947, he became president of the union, a position he held for six years. Reagan still considered himself a liberal Democrat, and he used his new political distinction to campaign for Harry Truman in 1948. There was occasional talk of Reagan himself running for Congress as a Democrat, but party leaders apparently opposed the idea because they considered him too liberal.
In reality, Reagan's political views were changing more rapidly than his public activities suggested. During the war, he had harshly criticized the waste and corruption he saw in the awarding of military contracts, and his suspicion of government bureaucracies only grew in the following years. He was also now complaining frequently about taxes. He had signed a million-dollar contract with Warner Brothers in 1944, but the very high wartime tax rates (up to 90 percent in the upper brackets) greatly reduced his income. In 1950, after initially endorsing the actress Helen Gahagan Douglas for the United States Senate, he switched his support to Richard Nixon in mid-campaign. And as president of SAG, he became active in efforts to distance the union from Communist influence (driven to do so, no doubt, by the savagely anti-Communist political climate, but also by his own deep and growing aversion to Communists). By the late 1940s, he was cooperating with the FBI and testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities against Communism in the union (although he was not asked to name any individual Communists). Subsequently, he cooperated with the studios as they quietly administered the notorious blacklist of alleged Communists who were to be barred from employment in the movie industry. Reagan later claimed that the effort by Hollywood Communists to "take over the motion picture business," and the unwillingness of many liberals to confront them, was responsible for his political turn to the right.
At least as responsible, however, was his marriage in 1952 to Nancy Davis, a young and largely unknown actress whom he had met at a dinner party in 1949. Davis was the daughter of a once-successful stage actress, Edith Luckett. Her natural parents separated when she was an infant, and she spent most of her childhood in the home of her mother's second husband, Loyal Davis, whose name Nancy took and whose right-wing political views she uncritically absorbed. Her family's conservatism reinforced Reagan's own accelerating drift to the right.
Reagan's second marriage was a happy one. The couple lived in a comfortable home in Pacific Palisades and began to spend time at a ranch Reagan had bought near Santa Barbara. They had two children, Patricia, born in 1952, and Ronald, born in 1958. But Reagan's film career was now in serious decline. Warner Brothers had not renewed his contract, and he was having difficulty finding steady work elsewhere. He was now in his mid-forties, and major stardom was coming to seem beyond his reach.