Born Ronald Wilson Reagan, February 6, 1911, in Tampico, IL; died of pneumonia, June 5, 2004, in Los Angeles, CA. Politician. Called "the Great Communicator," Ronald Reagan rose from humble beginnings to fame as a B-grade Hollywood star, later cementing his public image as a television host and spokesperson for General Electric, and finally achieving the highest offices of government, first as a two-term Governor of California, and later as a two-term President of the United States. He overcame emotional trials in his boyhood to become an unabashed optimist in public life, though his political detractors would accuse him of whitewashing and being soft on details. An accomplished lifeguard and athlete as a youth, he brought vigor and dedication to his roles in Hollywood and politics, finally squaring off against—and coming to surprising agreements with—Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev during the thawing of the Cold War. Though he came to be known reverently as "Mr. President," and before that "Governor," enduring nicknames such as "Ronnie," "Dutch," and "the Gipper" conveyed his trademark affability.
After winning roles as an actor in high school—where his performance as a student was lackluster—and graduating from college, Reagan went on to become a radio sports announcer, and, after a successful audition for Warner Bros., a contract player. His first film role was that of a news reporter in 1937's Love is on the Air. In all, he would make 50 feature films from the late 1930s through the mid-'60s, including Knute Rockne All American, King's Row, That Hagan Girl, The Hasty Heart, Bedtime for Bonzo, Hellcats of the Navy, and The Killers. He also performed on radio and television. In the 1950s, he was the host of TV's popular General Electric Theater and also a spokesperson for its sponsor. From 1947 to 1952, and from 1959-60, he was President of the Screen Actors Guild. In 1966, he was first elected to the California governorship, and in 1970 reelected. In 1976, he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican Party nomination for President, but in 1980, after a successful second attempt to win his party's nomination, he defeated Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter decisively. In 1984, he was reelected in a landslide victory over his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Walter Mondale.
Born in a small apartment in Tampico, Illinois, to John Edward Reagan, an Irish Roman Catholic, and Nelle Clyde Wilson Reagan, a Scottish-Irish Protestant, Ronald Reagan was the youngest of two boys. His brother, Neil, who performed in several films in the 1940s, died in 1996. At the time of Reagan's birth, his alcoholic and always struggling father sold shoes in Tampico's general store, but he eventually moved the family to Dixon, Illinois. Meanwhile his mother, a devout Christian who sometimes worked retail jobs, took pains to raise her boys to live productive and temperate lives, baptizing them, enrolling them in Bible study at the local church, and directing young Ronald in church plays. In high school, "Dutch," as he came to be known from a nickname given to him by his father, played football, basketball and track, and, in an early sign of his promise as a leader, became president of the student council. Summers he worked as a lifeguard. Later, at Eureka College, he excelled in football, became captain of the swim team, and president of the student body.
After his graduation in 1932, Reagan found sports announcing jobs on radio stations in Davenport and Des Moines, Iowa. Five years later, during a trip to California with the Chicago Cubs, a friend arranged a screen test for him at Warner Bros. studios. He was signed to a seven-year contract starting at $200 a week.
While Reagan became a certifiable star of the silver screen, he never reached A-list status, making mostly low budget action pictures, romantic comedies, and the occasional western. Still, he did win a few parts alongside big stars, such as Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, and Lionel Barrymore. An early success, 1942's King's Row, in which he played an amputee, provided him with a dramatic role in the film he considered his best. It also provided him with the title of his 1965 autobiography, Where's the rest of me?. His most famous role was opposite a chimpanzee in 1951's Bedtime for Bonzo.
In 1940, he wed actress Jane Wyman, with whom he had a daughter, Maureen. They also adopted a son, Michael. In 1948, Wyman divorced Reagan, telling the court, "there was nothing common between us ," according to the New York Times. Maureen Reagan died of cancer in 2001.
From 1947 to 1952, and again in 1959, he presided over the Screen Actors Guild. During the House Un-American Activities Committee's witch-hunting of suspected communists in Hollywood, Reagan refused to name names, but evidence has come to light that he secretly did just that to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. While Guild president, he met actress Nancy Davis when she complained to his office that her name had wrongfully appeared on the blacklist. They were married in 1952.
As his career as an actor waned, he became increasingly active in politics, first as a Democrat, then as a conservative Republican. As governor of California from 1967 to 1975, he increased the number of the state's functionaries by 34,000. In contrast to his later platform as President, he also raised taxes and signed a bill into law that effectively allowed abortion on demand.
Reagan's legacy as President of the United States, from 1981 to 1989, was garlanded by such successes as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the liberation of Grenada, the stifling of Colonel Qaddafi of Libya, and the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Soviet Union. But there were low points too. In 1981, he survived an assassination attempt, but his press secretary was paralyzed by a stray bullet; in 1983, a terrorist bombing of a barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, cost the lives of 241 U.S. marines; and in 1986, news broke of a conspiracy within his administration by which the profits from illegal arms sales to Iran, in exchange for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, had been diverted to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, whose guerrilla fighters Reagan likened to America's founding fathers. Though he avoided impeachment, Reagan's legacy was seriously tarnished. While his economic policies reinvigorated the economy, and crucial tax reform was passed under his watch, he spent liberally on defense. His deficit spending in the arms race tripled the size of the national debt and made the United States into the largest debtor nation.
Three years after the end of his second term as president, Reagan announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and quietly retired from public view. He lived another ten years, until his death at age 93 on June 5, 2004, in Los Angeles, California. He is survived by his wife, Nancy; his daughter, Patti; and sons Ron Jr. and Michael.
CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2004/reagan/stories/bio.part.one/index.html (January 10, 2005).
CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2004/reagan/stories/bio.part.two/index.html (January 10, 2005).
CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2004/reagan/stories/bio.part.three/index.html (January 10, 2005).
CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2004/reagan/stories/bio.part.four/index.html (January 10, 2005).
Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001654/ (January 18, 2005).
New York Times, June 6, 2004, p. A1.
People, June 21, 2004, pp. 92-105.
Washington Post, June 6, 2004, p. A1, p. A28.
—D. László Conhaim