EXCLUSIVE: I’ve learned that the Motion Picture Association Of America representing the Hollywood movie studios will be co-hosting a tribute to Ronald Reagan’s film career on November 14th in Washington DC. The other host will be the Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration, which is the year-long commemoration of Reagan’s 100th birthday in 2011. All the movie studios are obtaining old footage of Reagan’s 53-movie legacy from 1937 to 1965 and are putting together around 5 cinematic profiles of the former Screen Actors Guild president for the bipartisan event. But I suspect the real reason behind this Reagan tribute is to remind the Republican Party going into this election that Reagan was part of Hollywood. After all, the GOP and showbiz are barely on speaking terms these days, and recently the MPAA hired former Democratic Senator Chris Dodd to head the Hollywood lobbying organization even though certainly the House and likely the Senate and maybe even the White House, too, will be under Republican control in 2012. But the MPAA, which bills itself as the voice and advocate of the American motion picture industry, needs to continue to enlist the U.S. government’s help in fighting piracy overseas as well obtaining tax breaks for Big Media. The Hollywood studios participating in the tribute consist of the Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (owned by Walt Disney Co), Paramount Pictures Corporation (owned by Viacom), Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc (owned by Sony Corp), Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation (owned by News Corp), Universal City Studios LLC (owned by Comcast), and Warner Bros Entertainment Inc (owned by Time Warner).
Just to remind you, Reagan grew up in Illinois, attended college, and became a radio sports announcer (“Dutch” Reagan) until he moved to California after a screen test in 1937 won him a Warner Bros contract in Hollywood. Commissioned as a cavalry officer after the outbreak of WWII, Reagan was assigned to the Army Air Force’s First Motion Picture Unit making mostly training films in Los Angeles. He was typecast as the affable friend in mostly B movies and never reached the pinnacle of filmdom, despite many memorable roles like Knute Rockne – All American (1940) and Kings Row (1942) and Hasty Heart (1950). His tenure as SAG president was marked by controversy because of the tumultuous political climate of McCarthyism, and Reagan became embroiled in disputes over the issue of Communism in the union and film industry in general. In the early 1950s, actress Nancy Davis discovered her name was on one of the blacklists and she couldn’t find work as a result. She sought help from Reagan in his capacity as SAG president: he succeeded in removing her name from the list and later married her. Reagan testified as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee which was blacklisting actors, directors, and writers suspected of communist sympathies. Soon his own political views shifted from liberal Democratic like his father to conservative Republican like his second wife Nancy’s.
The then 43-year-old actor had been reduced to performing in Las Vegas as an emcee for a song-and-dance act when he turned to television and became the host of General Electric Theater. Reagan also was a spokesman for the company and went on promotional tours orchestrated by GE’s PR department and advertising agency. In all, Reagan visited GE’s 135 research and manufacturing facilities and met some 250,000 people. His popularity soared in the South, which, according to his biographers, planted the seeds for Southern conservatives to later underwrite his rise to the presidency. By 1962, Reagan’s GE Theater appearances were marred by the controversy around the Justice Department’s antitrust investigation of his talent agency MCA and the SAG waivers he’d granted as union president to his rep Lew Wasserman. At the same time Reagan’s increasingly anti-government advocacy while on tour began to vex GE’s brass.
The reason, I was told by Reagan’s longtime agent Arthur Parks, was because GE was bidding on a Tennessee generator project and didn’t want Reagan’s political speeches to blow the contract. So the company’s ad agency laid it on the line: Reagan’s option wouldn’t be picked up unless he shut up. Reagan thought it over, and then stunned his agents by saying no. They couldn’t believe that Reagan was turning down a half-million-dollar deal. GE’s president even spoke to Reagan personally but couldn’t get the actor to back off. Afterward, the GE exec phoned Parks with one last request: “Call Mr. Reagan and tell him I admire him more now than I did before I made the call for sticking to his guns.”
That year Reagan officially changed his political party affiliation and went on to become a key spokesman for conservatism which led him to run for political office and win election as Governor of California in 1966 for two terms. (When asked by a reporter how he would perform in office, Reagan replied, “I don’t know. I’ve never played a governor.”) Reagan went on to become the 40th U.S. president from 1981 until 1989. He remains without doubt the most successful actor in Hollywood history – not for his films but for his political activism.