February/March 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 1
When Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for governor of California—or so the story goes—somebody wisecracked, “Reagan for governor? No, Jimmy Stewart for governor. Reagan for best friend.” In later years Ronald Reagan would be referred to as a former film star, but in truth he was never really a star. In A-list films he was a costar; he was a star of sorts in B movies, competing with actors like Rory Calhoun for leads in second-level Westerns.
But he was a good costar and a good B-movie leading man, and he had, in certain roles, a scrappy Irish working-class charm that put a charge in a movie. His most famous part, as George Gipp, the salty, pool-hustling football player in
Reagan’s biggest hit was Kings Row (1942), a soap opera about small-town corruption in which his character awakens after an operation to find his legs have been amputated and exclaims the famous line “Where’s the rest of me?” (It was his second most famous bit of dialogue after his deathbed “Win one for the Gipper” speech in Rockne .) It’s the only dialogue in Kings Row worth recalling; the film has not held up well, largely because Robert Cummings’s performance in the lead is so bland he makes Reagan seem like . . . well, like Errol Flynn.
There’s so little substantial film work in Reagan’s résumé that if not for stints as the host and sometime actor on “General Electric Theater” (1954–61) and later on “Death Valley Days” in the mid-1960s, it’s doubtful he’d be remembered as an actor at all. Perhaps his biggest success as a leading man came in 1951 with
And then, at the very end of his acting career, Reagan not only made his best film but gave his best performance. In 1964, for reasons never quite specified, Don Siegel cast him against type (the two had worked together in a dreadful 1949 melodrama, Night Unto Night ) as an unscrupulous business tycoon in
But apparently no one wanted to see a nasty Ronald Reagan, and he never appeared in another film. Three years later he was elected governor of California, at last playing a role that allowed him to be both leading man and best friend.