When Ronald Reagan died on June 5 at the age of 93, his political adherents hailed him as the president who "made America feel better about itself" in the 1980s. Nobody claimed he made America feel better about movie acting. A genial featherweight who went in for neither introspection nor artifice, "Dutch" Reagan the actor played upright, well-scrubbed romantic leads in more than 60 mostly B-movies, many of them for Warner Brothers. Antagonists scoffed that he once shared top billing with a chimpanzee (in 1951's Bedtime for Bonzo), and everyone who ever bought popcorn was relieved to learn, as the details of his Hollywood career became clearer amid his political success, that Warner executives had replaced him at the last minute before shooting one of the studio's best-loved films. It's hard to imagine Reagan, instead of Bogart, delivering the deathless lament: "Of all the gin joints in all the world . . .," in the wartime classic Casablanca.
That's not to say the former contract player and General Electric Theatre host was bereft of acting skill. In his most demanding role, an eight-year run as the last Cold War president, he often spoke forcefully and dramatically. Neither Americans nor Germans will ever forget The Great Communicator's stirring challenge in the waning days of the Soviet Union: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Little matter, when it was all over, that even Reagan's most loyal friends acknowledged he often could not distinguish between a dashing part he'd essayed half a century earlier in, say, Code of the Secret Service, and his most recent exchange with Margaret Thatcher. He was what he was -- a player untroubled by self-doubt when the klieg lights came on.