It is a fairly safe assumption that if not for a career change which, ironically enough, took him out of the motion picture industry, Ronald Reagan would not rank among Hollywood's best-known stars; a genial if not highly skilled actor, he made few memorable films, and even then he rarely left much of a lasting impression. Of course, in 1980 Reagan became the President of the United States, and with his political ascendancy came a flurry of new interest in his film career. His acting work -- especially the infamous Bedtime for Bonzo -- became the subject of much discussion, the majority of it highly satirical. Still, there is no denying that he enjoyed a long and prolific movie career. Moreover, he remains among the first and most famous actors to make the move into politics, a trend which grew more and more prevalent in the wake of his rise to power.
Born February 6, 1911, in Tampico, IL, Ronald Wilson Reagan began his acting career while studying economics at Eureka College. He broke into show business as a sportscaster at a Des Moines, IA, radio station, and from there assumed the position of play-by-play announcer for the Chicago Cubs. By the mid-'30s, he relocated to Hollywood, signing with Warner Bros. in 1937 and making his screen debut later that year in Love Is on the Air. Reagan made over a dozen more films over the course of the next two years, almost all of them B-movies. In 1939, however, he won a prominent role in the Bette Davis tearjerker Dark Victory, a performance which greatly increased his visibility throughout the Hollywood community. It helped him win his most famous role, as the ill-fated Notre Dame football hero George Gipp in the 1940 film biography Knute Rockne: All American. At the film's climax he delivered the immortal line "Win one for the Gipper!," an oft-quoted catchphrase throughout his White House tenure.
In 1940, Reagan married actress Jane Wyman, with whom he had two children. The following year, he co-starred in Sam Wood's acclaimed Kings Row, arguably his most accomplished picture. During World War II, he served as a non-combative captain in the Army Air Corps, producing a number of training films. Upon returning to Hollywood in 1947, he began a five-year term as president of the Screen Actors Guild, a position he again assumed in 1959. It was during this period that Reagan, long a prominent liberal voice in Hollywood politics, became embroiled in McCarthy-era battles over communism in the film industry, and gradually his views shifted from the left to the right. He also continued appearing in films and in 1950 co-starred in the well-received melodrama The Hasty Heart. A year later, Reagan accepted perhaps his most notorious role, in Bedtime for Bonzo, in which he portrayed a college professor who befriends his test subject, a chimpanzee; throughout his political career, the picture was the butt of a never-ending series of jokes.
During the 1950s, Reagan freelanced among a variety of studios. Still, his film career began to wane, and in 1954 he began an eight-year stint as the host of the television series General Electric Theater. Among Reagan's final film appearances was 1957's Hellcats of the Navy, where he appeared with actress Nancy Davis, his second wife. He did not make another film prior to narrating 1961's The Young Doctors, and with 1964's remake of The Killers, he effectively ended his performing career. That same year he entered politics, actively campaigning for Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. In 1966, Reagan was elected Governor of California, and over the course of his eight-year gubernatorial stint emerged as one of the Republican party's most powerful and well-recognized voices. In 1976, Reagan ran against Gerald Ford in the Republican Presidential primary, but was unsuccessful; four years later, however, he defeated Jimmy Carter to become the nation's 40th President. The rest, as they say, is history.