Skip to main content

MY BRUSH WITH HISTORY

Not Right For The Part

June 2024
3min read

"Gosh, it would be fun to play a President of the United States," said Lt. Reagan.

In April of 1942 I enlisted in Psychological Research Unit 3 at the Santa Ana Army Air Base. I had written the story for a historical film called Ten Gentlemen from West Point, and when it played at the post theater I became a local celebrity and was promoted from private to sergeant and assigned to the Public Relations Office.

The author directed Ronald Reagan in movies for the Army Air Force during World War II.

I was sent to an old movie studio near Hollywood on orders of Gen. Henry (“Hap”) Arnold, who had established the first Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Corps to produce aviation training films and send combat camera units around the world. I presented my papers to the personnel officer, a handsome, friendly thirty-one-year-old lieutenant with horn-rimmed glasses and reddish brown hair, named Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Ronald Reagan starred in numerous wartime movies including "The Rear Gunner" in 1943.
Ronald Reagan starred in numerous wartime movies including "The Rear Gunner" in 1943.

In 1937 Reagan had enlisted in the U.S. Cavalry Reserve as a second lieutenant. In April 1942 he was earning a thousand dollars a week as a movie star at Warner Brothers in Burbank when he was called to active duty at Fort Mason, San Francisco. Reagan expected to be shipped overseas, but when an eye examination showed him to be myopic, he was restricted to limited service in the continental United States.

After I saluted, he stared at me quizzically. “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before, Sergeant?”

“Could be, Lieutenant,” I replied. “I worked as a writer for seven months at Warner Brothers in 1939. We didn’t meet because the only actors who ate at the writers’ table in the greenroom were Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart.” What I couldn’t tell him was that the snobbish big-city writers, led by John Huston, regarded him as a small-town boy.

Reagan sent me to Capt. Robert Carson, head of production and a well-known novelist who had co-written the classic A Star Is Born. Carson studied my papers and sergeant’s stripes. “So you’ve been in the Army for six months, like Ronnie Reagan?” I nodded. “And you completed your basic training and all that military crap?” I nodded again. “Well,” he said, “we’re lucky to get guys like you and Ronnie because the rest of us are really civilians pretending to be soldiers. We’re fresh from studio lots, and the younger boys are right out of the mailroom at Warner Brothers.

“Writing assignments will be coming up soon. But in the meantime, there’ll be odd jobs to keep you out of trouble.”

One of these “odd jobs” was acting in a film. I had done radio and stage acting but I’d never been on the screen, so it was with great anticipation that I reported to a hospital set. I was to play a pilot who had been shot down and badly burned.

I couldn’t tell Reagan that the snobbish big-city writers, led by John Huston, dismissed him as a small-town boy.

The makeup people wrapped my face and head so that I looked like a mummy. The director ordered me to climb into a bed. He called out, “Lights, camera, action!” and my costar entered. It was Ronald Reagan, resplendent in a pilot’s uniform. He stood over me and asked how I was. Since my lips were bandaged, all I could make were muffled sounds. Reagan patted me sympathetically on the head and walked out.

The director praised us for a great performance. Several weeks later a general put me in charge of overseeing the narration on a film. I walked onto a recording stage and found Reagan waiting to read the script. He stared at me in astonishment. “What the heck is this all about?”

“It means,” I replied, “that I’m going to be your director.” I was twenty-five years old at the time but looked closer to nineteen.

“Look, son,” he began in a fatherly way, “I started out in this business as a radio announcer and then became a movie star. And you’re going to tell me how to read lines?”

“That’s what the general’s order says,” I countered.

A short heated discussion followed about whether a general in the field had the jurisdiction to dictate to the film unit. I suggested that Reagan call Washington to settle the dispute.

“No,” he said. “That won’t work. We’ve got too many inspectors telling us how to make movies. Let’s keep Washington off our backs and work it out between ourselves.”

I later came to think the shrewd compromise was an early indication of Reagan’s future as a politician. He recorded the narration two ways -- my way and his way. Then Bob Carson decided which one he wanted to use.

That’s the way we worked it out for the next two and a half years. On subsequent projects, while waiting for the sound men to get their equipment ready, Reagan and I discussed the war and politics. We both were loyal Democrats and admirers of Franklin Roosevelt. I told him that I was working on Father Was President, a play in which Roosevelt was a minor character. The hero was Theodore Roosevelt.

After the war ended in August 1945, Paramount optioned the play for production at a local theater. When I told Reagan about this, he wished me luck.

“Who’s going to be playing President Roosevelt?” he asked.

“Albert Dekker,” I replied.

“Well, if it ever gets done as a movie, do you think there’s a chance of my being loaned out by Warner Brothers to do the part?”

I shook my head. “Ronnie baby,” I told him, “you’re only thirty-five. You’re too good-looking and young to play the part.”

He laughed. “Well, I could age. Gosh, it would be fun to play a President of the United States.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.

Donate