6 June 2004 | Ronald Reagan (1911-2004)

Actor and President

On 4 November 1980 I was opening in Amadeus at the National Theatre in Washington DC. It was, more significantly, voting day in USA. Jimmy Carter's presidency was being challenged by Ronald Reagan, the ex-actor who had made 50 Hollywood movies. The American cast of Amadeus all seemed to have voted for him, even though, as president of Screen Actors Guild for eight years, he had been involved in murky goings-on which led to criminal and civil investigations by both the FBI and a federal grand jury in Los Angeles. He had presided over SAG's favouring the agency MCA at the expense of actors' share in residual payments for televising feature films. But for our cast, Carter's unpopularity outweighed this betrayal of actors' rights, erasing even memories of the Hollywood blacklist period, when the FBI accused Reagan and his first wife Jane Wyman of having Communist Party affiliations. Reagan then testified as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

In truth Reagan's arrival in politics was not a direct result of any acting prowess. Even while he was at SAG, he was made a partner in MCA and hosted their General Electric Theater, a weekly television series. During the series' eight-year run, Reagan made hundreds of personal appearances around the country on GE's behalf, meanwhile advertising Chesterfield cigarettes. He was a famous face, good-looking too. He could deliver a pitch. He could tell jokes well. He always seemed to be himself a difficult part for an actor to play.

I met him once. In 1982 I was at the Folger Library's 50th anniversary fund-raising effort the day before Shakespeare's birthday. On the afternoon of 22 April, I presented a cut-down version of my solo show Acting Shakespeare in the Folger's ersatz Elizabethan playhouse and then accompanied the audience of 200 or so benefactors to the White House where we were seated in the East Room. On the dot of 5.30pm a disembodied voice announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, The President of the United States of America and Mrs Reagan". And in they ran — or so it seemed. This was just a year after the Hinckley shooting and perhaps Reagan's hasty stride was to show his complete recovery. His shoulders were hugely padded and the double breasted suit suggested a healthy bulk beneath. His hair colour was more convincingly natural than in photographs, slightly greyed at the temples. He didn't wear glasses to read his charming self-deprecating speech about the Folger, its Shakespeare folios and collection of classics:

"Someone once pointed out to me that... simply by opening the covers of books, we could find from the past the answers to every one of the problems that beset us, if we would only turn to them and heed those words."

It was an impressive point for a determinedly non-intellectual politician to make. (Mind you, up for election two years later, he repeated the point in a Bible-Belt oration. On television I saw him hold aloft the good book: "Within the covers of the Bible are all the answers for all the problems men face.")

The ceremony over, the Reagans left for refreshments and somehow I was beside them walking down the corridor, chatting about the weather and accommodation in the nation's capital. By the time we reached the Blue Room I think it was, there was a line behind us which queued up to shake the President's hand. According to Mrs Reagan's social secretary this was not planned: we should all have milled around so the President could slip away to the presidential apartment. He rarely worked evenings, so perhaps was not as strong as the shoulder pads suggested. As it was, he and the first lady met everyone, glad-handing some, embracing others, clapping some on the back, punching others in the chest, each according to their status. Mrs Reagan prompted her husband, much as I've noticed an equerry discreetly helping the Queen as she meets her subjects. Of course the President is a sort of monarch, head of state as well as politician. In the United Kingdom, where the separation of state ceremonial and executive power has been long since separated, it is confusing to us how Americans revere their leaders even while they abhor their political actions.

Reagan's home was in California where he died yesterday. Perhaps his heart never left Hollywood. Meryl Streep told me in 1984 that she had had a couple of calls from the White House, when Reagan chatted to her about the difficulties of coping with the Soviet Union: "We don't know who is really in power there". I can't imagine Mrs Thatcher ever consulting with a member of British Actors' Equity!

Ronald Reagan and Marilyn Monroe, Hollywood 1959

Amidst the outpouring of praise for the Reagan Years, one considerable blot remains — his response to the greatest epidemic of the last century. Despite the recent television biopic, we don't really know what he thought or knew about AIDS during his presidency, although the rest of the world knew a great deal from 1981 onwards. There was a paranoid rumour in the early confusing years as gay men succumbed to the disease, that it was spread by releasing the virus through the air-conditioning of gay bars! In 1985, Larry Kramer's polemic Normal Heart delivered onstage (600 productions worldwide) his devastating attack on the New York Times and the US political establishment for ignoring AIDS. By the end of 1987 59,572 AIDS cases had been reported of whom 27,909 had died.

That said, I read in Deroy Murdock's 2003 report: "In a Congressional Research Service study titled AIDS Funding for Federal Government Programs: FY1981-FY1999, author Judith Johnson found that overall, the federal government spent $5.727 billion on AIDS under Ronald Reagan."

Much is being written about Thatcher and Reagan, their twin economic and anti-communist fervour. What may be missed, however, is Thatcher's penchant for good-looking men with whom I've observed her flirting. Thatcher's gender and Reagan's movie stardom may not be much relevant to their success in politics but in their own relationship, there may be a connection. — Ian McKellen, 6 June 2004

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan dance in 1982
Photo by M. Sprague
Photo by Mike Sargent

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