When Reagan Was Reagan

Dark Victory: Ronald Reagan, MCA, and the Mob

by Dan E. Moldea
Viking, 382 pp., $18.95

City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s

by Otto Friedrich
Harper and Row, 495 pp., $25.00

A president who is popular in the country and cuts a commanding figure in Washington, which Ronald Reagan has been, will always generate an interest in his background. In the case of presidents who become folk heroes, like Washington, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts, hagiographers created an enduring mythology around the story of each man’s progression through young adulthood; whatever noble qualities are attributed to the president and his time in power are made to spring from the virtue inherent in his early milieu. But during the formative period that Lincoln spent as a country lawyer, or Teddy Roosevelt as an urban-reformer-cum-Western-big-game-hunter, Reagan was a contract player at Warner Brothers, and while we may be addicted to Hollywood we don’t think of it as building character. Young Man Reagan has therefore not been a favorite subject of admiring conservatives.

It’s the Reagan haters who are drawn to the subject of his years as an actor. Apart from the atmosphere of triviality and decadence, what beckons them to Hollywood is the shadowy outline of a scandal. It goes something like this:

1947: Reagan, rapidly becoming more conservative (the year before, he resigned from the board of a Communist party—infiltrated Hollywood “citizens’ committee,” and began secretly informing for the FBI), takes over from Robert Montgomery as president of the Screen Actors Guild. He is also suffering what we’d now call a premature mid-life crisis, with his acting career and his marriage to Jane Wyman both disintegrating.

1949: Reagan’s agent, Lew Wasserman of MCA, later to become the most powerful man in Hollywood, persuades Warners to grant Reagan the unusual concession of letting him half out of his contract (he is now obliged to do only one picture a year, at half pay), and then gets Reagan a five-picture deal at Universal—an immense financial boost for an actor in career trouble.

1951: Reagan buys a 290-acre plot of unimproved ranch land along Mulholland Drive for $293 an acre.

1952: The Screen Actors Guild, under Reagan’s leadership, grants Reagan’s agency, MCA, an immensely valuable “blanket waiver” of its rule prohibiting agents from being producers too. This allows MCA, and no other agency, to move aggressively into the production of television shows while keeping its base as a talent agency.

1954: With Reagan’s career again in decline, MCA arranges a $125,000-a-year contract for him with General Electric, which gives him the job of host on the weekly GE Theater on television.

1960: Reagan comes out of retirement as president of the Screen Actors Guild to take the helm for six months, during which time the guild makes a deal permitting owners of films made before 1960 to play them on television without paying the actors royalties; MCA, as owner of the largest film library, is by far the greatest single beneficiary of this policy.

1962: MCA, its activities as a TV producer having become much more important than those of its talent agency, dissolves the agency under pressure from the antitrust division of the Justice…

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