Hollywood Was Just A Warm-Up

Ronald Reagan wasn't headed for Hollywood and the silver screen when he went west in 1937.

A sportscaster, he was sent by his Iowa radio station to cover the Chicago Cubs spring training on Catalina Island, reports Correspondent John Blackstone for CBS News Sunday Morning.

But a friend introduced him to an agent, who got him a screen test, which won him a meeting at Warner Bros. with Jack Warner himself.

"An agent called," Jack Warner recalled in 1967, "said there's a chap out here from Des Moines, Ioway, who, as I understood him to say, he was a sports radio announcer in Des Moines. His name is Ronald Reagan. I said, 'Fine, bring him over and let me say hello to him.'"

What caught Warner's eye was the way Mr. Reagan's personality projected. "It comes through. He had a good smile, happy delivery," Warner said.

That film persona - the good-looking all-American easy-going guy -- fit him like a glove. And Mr. Reagan fit right in at the film factory, eventually churning out more than 50 pictures (eight in 1938 alone). Mr. Reagan called himself "the Errol Flynn of the B movies," but the truth is he mostly didn't get the girl.

He did get a wife, actress Jane Wyman, and he did play bit parts in "A" movies with the biggest stars of the day. His career got a big boost from a supporting role, football legend George Gip in "Knute Rockne, All American," and a line from that film ("Win just one for the Gipper") became synonymous with Mr. Reagan.

In 1942 a movie that should have catapulted him out of the pack was "King's Row," with Mr. Reagan as a playboy who wakes up from an accident to find his legs amputated. But by the time the film (and the rave reviews for Mr. Reagan's performance) came out, Mr. Reagan was already in the Army, making training films.

And by the time he got his discharge four years later, his career had lost its steam and Hollywood tastes had changed. Still, he went on to make 22 more films. These included his only film with his second wife, starlet Nancy Davis, and the movie his political rivals would never let him forget, when he played straight man to a chimp.

In his last movie, "The Killers," Mr. Reagan went against type to play a gangster. He later said he regretted it, but it really didn't matter, because as his film career was fading out, he was already moving on to television and parlaying his Hollywood connections into a bigger career in the public eye.

But there were always movies. Even as president, he watched hundreds of movies, mostly at Camp David, over big bowls of popcorn.

For most actors, Hollywood is a pinnacle. For Ronald Reagan, it was a prelude.