When he first guided his shiny Nash convertible through the Warner Bros. gates in 1937, Ronald Reagan was a New Deal Democrat, a liberal unionist fighting for those "at the bottom of the ladder," a budding anti-fascist who deplored blacklists.
By the time he steered away from the entertainment business 23 years later, he had been transformed into a studio ally, a riveting political speaker and a staunch anti-Communist who, under the FBI code name "T-10," secretly named names.
Reagan's studio years did far more than establish the actor's public persona as "the Gipper." Even though many of his film roles were forgettable, his show business tenure memorably reshaped his worldview, cementing the core principles of small government and free enterprise that carried him to the California governor's office and the White House.
In Reagan's debut, he appeared as a radio announcer in 1937's "Love Is on the Air." In his first three years, he made about 20 films. He developed a dependable reputation, and eventually the parts improved, although he never reached superstardom. " 'Mr. Norm' is my alias" is how Reagan described himself.
Reagan grew deeply involved in the Screen Actors Guild, becoming its president in 1947 and then staying on for five more consecutive one-year terms.
According to a 1947 FBI report, Reagan told the government that he wanted Congress to declare the Communist Party illegal and designate which organizations were Communist fronts. By the time the House committee resumed investigating Hollywood in 1951, Reagan staunchly supported its effort, even concluding that blacklisting was important.
Ironically, he met his future wife, "East Side, West Side" costar Nancy Davis, over her concerns about the very blacklists that Reagan himself helped perpetuate. Davis had been confused with another Nancy Davis, who had been linked to several Communist front groups. Reagan met with Davis to assuage her worries. They were married in 1952.
His career was foundering, though, the lowlight coming with 1951's chimp comedy, "Bedtime for Bonzo."
To promote the television show "General Electric Theater," Reagan visited more than 100 G.E. plants, sometimes making more than a dozen speeches a day. But instead of talking about Hollywood, he soon was making speeches about current events. Within just a few years, he was no longer speaking to appliance makers but addressing the state he now governed.
His journey from actor to showbiz union leader to TV host to politician was complete.