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Reagan’s acting career full of what-ifs

As an actor, Ronald Reagan meant different things to different generations.

If you grew up in the late 1950s/early 1960s, you probably knew him as the confident host of “General Electric Theater,” whose chief job each week was to introduce an hour-long drama and remind the audience that, for the show’s sponsor, “progress is our most important product.”

You may also remember him as the host of another television series, “Death Valley Days,” or as a scary heavy in Don Siegel’s 1964 remake of Hemingway’s “The Killers,” his last movie — and one of his toughest. He played a mean gangster who slaps his mistress (Angie Dickinson), and, in retrospect at least, seemed to be rehearsing for his early-1980s speeches about the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union. “The Killers” was also made for television, but it was considered too violent for the tube and was released to theaters first.

If you grew up in the post-war era, you’re more likely to remember Reagan as the genial star of “Bedtime for Bonzo,” a 1951 family comedy that lightly examines the nature-vs.-nurture controversy. Playing a college professor who argues that environment is key to raising children, Reagan co-starred with a scene-stealing chimpanzee.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when Reagan was running for office, Democrats used the movie to mock him at fund-raisers. Film historian Danny Peary claimed that these attempts at ridicule “always backfired because the picture is surprisingly enjoyable, amusing rather than campy...Reagan proves to be an adequate partner to the chimp, only rarely being his foil and never playing the fool.”

In 1949, he co-starred with Patricia Neal and Richard Todd in a much-praised adaptation of John Patrick’s army hospital drama, “The Hasty Heart,” but the film’s only Oscar nomination went to Todd. Around the same time, Reagan’s marriage to Jane Wyman broke up, just as she was winning an Oscar for “Johnny Belinda.”

Most of his other post-war vehicles are forgotten, though there’s a certain amount of camp appeal in his 1954 Western with Barbara Stanwyck, “Cattle Queen of Montana,” and the tacky 1957 war movie, “Hellcats of the Navy,” in which he co-starred with his second wife, Nancy Davis.

Life as the GipperReagan himself never earned Academy Award recognition, though he may have been briefly considered for one of the leading roles in the immortal “Casablanca.” It’s hard to see Reagan, Ann Sheridan and Dennis Morgan in the parts later played by Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid, and some historians claim this casting was never a serious possibility — just a planted press release.

Yet in the early 1940s, Warner Bros. did consider Reagan a fairly hot property, and the studio put him in several of its major releases. He played General George Custer in “Santa Fe Trail” (1940), football legend George Gipp in “Knute Rockne, All-American” (1940), and a small-town man whose legs are unnecessarily amputated in “Kings Row” (1942), a surprisingly dark and twisted melodrama that earned an Oscar nomination for best picture. Many regard it as his best and most daring movie.

The amputation led to his most famous line, “Where’s the rest of me?,” which also became the title of Reagan’s 1965 autobiography. “Knute Rockne” also featured a much-quoted line. His dying character’s final words: “Some time when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper.”

Youth and sincerity helped Reagan win a Warners contract in 1937, and he appeared with Wyman in “Brother Rat” (1938), James Cagney in “Boy Meets Girl” (1938), and with Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart in “Dark Victory” (1939). He was as interested in sports as in drama in college; his job as an Iowa sportscaster earned him the nickname “Dutch Reagan.”

Reagan has often been called a has-been actor who got into politics just in time, but his career had several what-if turning points. What if “Bedtime for Bonzo” had led to a lucrative series, like the “Frances the Talking Mule” comedies that helped make a star of Donald O’Connor? (There was a Reagan-less 1952 sequel, “Bonzo Goes to College”).

What if he had been cast in “Casablanca”? What if “The Killers” had been a beginning rather than an end? Reagan might not have run for office at all.