Remembering Reagan’s Best Films Before He Was President

DEATH VALLEY DAYS, Ronald Reagan, 'Tribute To a Dog,' (Season 13, Episode 9, aired December 24, 1964), 1952-1975
Everett Collection

While many youngsters recognize that Ronald Reagan was once President of the United States, some may be shocked to learn that he was an actor before he ever entered the Oval Office. Born in 1911, he actually began his career as a sports broadcaster in Iowa after graduating from Eureka College. In 1936, he was traveling with the Cubs for work when he decided to take a screen test since he had always been interested in acting. He was able to secure a seven-year contract with Warner Bros. and moved to Hollywood.

He made his film debut in 1937 with the film Love is on the Air. Prior to joining the military in 1942, he made thirty movies, with his role in Kings Row considered his best performance by many critics. Unfortunately, his time in World War II cut short his successful acting career and he didn’t really like the roles he was receiving anymore. He ended up negotiating his contract and got to work with Universal Pictures, RKO Pictures, and Paramount Pictures, allowing him to work on new types of films including westerns.

GENERAL ELECTRIC THEATER, Ronald Reagan, 1953-1962, 1955 publicity pose

Everett Collection

As his career was slowing down a bit, he was elected to the position of the president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and served two different stints as president. He did appear on television too, as the host of the production General Electric Theater and Death Valley Days.

In honor of the anniversary of his death on June 5, 2004, at the age of 93, let’s go over some of his top films.

ronald reagan chesterfield ad


Bonus fun fact: Reagan was a huge celebrity endorser and endorsed products in ads including Chesterfield cigarettes, Royal Crown Cola, Marlboro shirts, V8, and Wildroot Cream Oil, to name a few.

Santa Fe Trail

SANTA FE TRAIL, Ronald Reagan, Olivia de Havilland, Errol Flynn, 1940

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Reagan and Errol Flynn starred in two films together, including Santa Fe Trail (the other one is called Desperate Journey), also starring the late Olivia de Havilland. This was one of his best based on the chemistry between Flynn and Reagan, as friends and romantic rivals in the film. It was an adventure of the Santa Fe Trail and while it only shows one side of history, it was one of those quintessential ’40s films.

Hellcats of the Navy

HELLCATS OF THE NAVY, from left: Ronald Reagan, Nancy Davis, 1957

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This is the only film that Reagan and his wife and former first lady Nancy Reagan appeared in together. The 1957 film is the only film to ever feature a future president and future first lady in it. Rumor has it that Reagan didn’t really like the role as it was more of a romantic drama than a rousing wartime film but it is still worth watching just to see the two act together in his historical film.

Knute Rockne, All American


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While Reagan appears in a supporting role in this film, it is still one of his most famous performances as he plays George Gipp, a football player for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. If you’ve ever seen the film, or even if you haven’t, you have likely heard his iconic line “Tell ’em to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper.”

The Killers

THE KILLERS, Ronald Reagan, 1964

Everett Collection

After his streak of movies ended, he still acted here and there in the ’60s. One of these roles was in The Killers as a supporting character. Despite playing the good guy in many of his films, this one saw him play a bad-boy gangster. He did so well in the role that he probably could have kept going with these kinds of characters but opted to start getting into politics instead.

Kings Row

KINGS ROW, Ronald Reagan, 1942

Everett Collection

Considered one of his best films, if not the best, Reagan stars as Drake McHugh, a rich boy who is forced to work after he loses his trust fund. After an accident, a doctor amputates his legs as a way to get revenge after McHugh broke his daughter’s heart. If you’ve seen the film, you likely remember the line “Where’s the rest of me?” that eventually became the title of his autobiography. The film was nominated for three Oscars but Reagan never won one during his time as an actor.

Whether you loved him or hated him, you can’t deny that he has a spot in history in both Hollywood and the world of politics.

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