Amiable personality suited Reagan well in Hollywood

Ronald Reagan’s boy-next-door quality as an actor brought him film roles as diverse as the victim of an evil surgeon in “King’s Row” and the college professor who experiments with raising a chimpanzee in the comedy “Bedtime for Bonzo.”

Reagan appeared in more than 50 films over two decades in Hollywood before gradually shifting into politics, where his warm, clear voice and knack for appearing relaxed and sincere in front of an audience served him well.

Working mostly for Warner Bros., he appeared with such stars as Errol Flynn (“Santa Fe Trail,” 1940), Wallace Beery and Lionel Barrymore (“The Bad Man,” 1941), Shirley Temple (“That Hagen Girl,” 1947), Ann Sheridan (“Juke Girl,” 1942) and Patricia Neal (“John Loves Mary,” 1949).

While never reaching the superstar level of friends such as Jimmy Stewart, Reagan advanced from “B” pictures to major roles in larger productions.

In 1939, he had a supporting role as a carefree playboy in the Bette Davis weeper “Dark Victory.”

In “Knute Rockne: All-American,” 1940, Reagan played George Gipp, the doomed football star who was Rockne’s protege. Reagan convinced the producers he could play the role by showing pictures of himself in his college football uniform.

“Ask them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper,” the dying Gipp tells Rockne, played by Pat O’Brien.

Reagan once called the role “the springboard which bounced me into a wider variety of parts in pictures. Before that, I always played a jet-propelled newspaper man who solved more crimes than a lie detector.”

“King’s Row,” 1942, was a small-town melodrama featuring Reagan as a man whose legs are amputated by a twisted surgeon bent on revenge. He called it his best film. His anguished cry, “Where’s the rest of me?” was a highlight of the film and became the title of his first autobiography in 1965. Variety praised Reagan’s “continuously believable job” in the role.

He wrote later that the anguish in the scene was real. His legs were hidden in a hole in the bed. As he lay there, the illusion that his legs were gone was so spooky that he asked the director to film him on the spot so he could use his anxiety to add reality to his performance.

On the lighter side was “Bedtime for Bonzo,” 1951, in which Reagan, as a professor, played second fiddle to a chimpanzee the professor was raising as part of an experiment in development.

One disappointment in his career was that Warner Bros., known for typecasting its players, kept him from doing Westerns. As a freelancer in the early ’50s, he was finally able to make some, including “Cattle Queen of Montana” with Barbara Stanwyck.

His film career ended with “The Killers” in 1964, two years before he won election as governor of California.

As the magazine Films in Review wrote in 1967, “Opinions may differ about Ronald Reagan’s politics, but even the political enemies of California’s present governor grant that, as an actor, he made the most of what he had.”

Like many actors of his generation, Reagan was critical of Hollywood’s frankness on sexual themes.

“You can call me a blockhead or a prude if you want, but … if I was offered a script and told I had to say those words, I would have turned down the script,” he said in a 1989 speech.

But he said he did not want outside censorship, calling on Hollywood to police itself.

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