It was a bit part, really, in the 1940 movie "Knute Rockne -- All American," starring the late Pat O'Brien in the title role. Ronald Reagan plays George Gipp, who would die young and become a Notre Dame football legend. We meet Gipp on the practice field, where Rockne asks him if he can carry a football. With quiet cockiness, Gipp replies, "How far?"
It was Reagan's first celebrated one-liner in his first hit and it defined the confident yet unassuming personality Americans would come to know in Reagan's intervening 45 years as actor, politician, governor of California and president of the United States.
No American has dominated the public consciousness in as many roles as Reagan. He has been the Great Communicator, and the Great Comforter. He has challenged the establishment and come to define it. He has made us laugh and cry. And he has enjoyed, as they used to say in show business, a long run.
Reagan is 75 today, a young-old man who looks to the future while evoking the precepts of the past. His lifetime has spanned four American wars, the Great Depression and the rise of a high-technology society. After surviving a would-be assassin's bullet in 1981 and cancer surgery last summer, he seems to be -- as he said of the American people in his State of the Union speech Tuesday -- "growing stronger every day."
Here, looking backward, are the great hits that Americans remember from Reagan's extraordinary career:
*"King's Row": This 1941 film provided Reagan's most memorable movie line, "Where's the rest of me?" which Drake McHugh (Reagan) utters when he awakens in his hospital bed and finds that a perverted surgeon has deliberately amputated his legs because he doesn't want McHugh running around with his daughter. The line becomes the title of Reagan's 1965 biography. Both the president and Nancy Reagan consider it the best film he made during a Hollywood career that spanned 28 years and included 53 films. But Reagan actually received better critical reviews for minor roles in several other movies, among them "Brother Rat" (1938), "Knute Rockne -- All American" and "The Hasty Heart" (1949).
*The Great Red Hunt: In 1947, with the Cold War thriving, the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigated communist influence in the film industry. Reagan, testifying as president of the Screen Actors Guild, pleased neither the committee (whose members included Richard Nixon) nor the targets of the investigation. In his testimony Reagan, then a liberal Democrat, opposed communism but minimized its influence in Hollywood and said, "I hope that we are never prompted by fear of communism into compromising our democratic principles."
*"General Electric Theater": Reagan's career took a new turn in 1954, when he began hosting a weekly dramatic series on television. His contract with GE required him to travel around the country (always by train, because Reagan was then afraid of flying) to address audiences of employes. Reagan made the most of the opportunity to hone political skills. During his eight years at GE Theater he perfected his speaking style, developed business sympathies and discarded his New Deal liberalism.
*The Goldwater Speech: On Oct. 27, 1964, Reagan burst into national political consciousness with a stirring televised speech that raised more than $1 million, then a record amount, for the hopeless presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater. Overnight, Reagan became a conservative sensation and a potential political candidate. The speech itself relied heavily on unidentified quotations from great presidents of the past -- Abraham Lincoln's description of America as "the last best hope of man on earth" and Franklin D. Roosevelt's assertion that "you and I have a rendezvous with destiny."
*Governor of California: During his 1966 campaign against incumbent Democratic governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, Reagan was asked what kind of governor he would make. "I don't know, I've never played a governor," he quipped in response. But once in office he mastered his first lead political role. "History offers no consolation for failure," Reagan said in his handwritten inaugural address, foreshadowing a passage he used as recently as Tuesday in his State of the Union message.
Historical critics have given Reagan's eight years as governor of the nation's most populous state mixed reviews while generally agreeing that he was far more successful in his second term than his first. Despite his pledge to "squeeze, cut and trim" the cost of government, Reagan presided over the state's largest tax increase. But he reduced the growth of government and, working with Democratic leaders, engineered a welfare reform bill widely praised by conservatives and liberals alike.
*Defeated Challenger: Reagan started badly in his attempt to unseat President Gerald R. Ford as the Republican nominee. He lost New Hampshire by a whisker after his political operatives had created the expectation of victory and went on to lose four other primaries. But on March 23, 1976, he stunned Ford with an upset victory in North Carolina and fought on even terms after that, losing the nomination at the GOP convention in Kansas City by only 117 delegate votes.
In defeat, Reagan was victorious. Quoting from an English ballad he had memorized as a child, Reagan consoled his supporters with a promise of future triumphs. "Lay me down and bleed awhile," Reagan said. "Though I am wounded, I am not slain. I shall rise and fight again."
*The Gipper: In a noisy high school gymnasium in Nashua, N.H., on Feb. 23, 1980, Reagan demonstrated the ability to capture the political moment when he captured a microphone and, with it, the Republican nomination for president. "I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green," Reagan said to Nashua Telegraph editor Jon Breen, who was unsuccessfully trying to cut him off. The mistake in the name was overlooked but Reagan's performance wasn't. He defeated a shaken George Bush in their debate that night and went on to an easy victory. "At a high school in Nashua," said a headline in The Boston Globe, "the Gipper grabbed the brass ring."
*President of the United States: Reagan took over his biggest role after a successful repeat performance as "The Gipper" against Jimmy Carter, who carried only six states and the District of Columbia. In his inaugural address Reagan celebrated the heroism of Americans and declared, "We have every right to dream heroic dreams."
*The Target: Reagan demonstrated his own heroism on March 30, 1981, when he was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt. A bullet fired by John W. Hinckley Jr. lodged within an inch of Reagan's heart, narrowly missing the aorta. Reagan captured the imagination of the nation with his one-liners in this emergency, telling Nancy Reagan at the hospital, "Honey, I forgot to duck," and saying to the surgeons who were preparing him for operation, "Please tell me you're Republicans." Reagan's critics had sometimes deplored his one-liners as unconvincing inventions of his speech writers. But in this moment of crisis, Reagan's wit was revealed as genuine -- and as a graceful and courageous response to pain and adversity.
*Naptime at the Vatican: At the Vatican on June 7, 1982, during his first European trip as president, a fatigued Reagan succumbed to sleep in the warmth of the papal library and briefly nodded off during a televised appeal by Pope John Paul II for world peace and justice.
Reagan's "nap" evoked sympathy in the traveling party, where there was belated recognition that the president had been badly overscheduled. But Reagan had no excuses in Brazil six months later where he proposed a toast to his host, Brazilian President Joao Figueiredo and "the people of Bolivia." Reagan tried to recover from this gaffe by saying that Bolivia is "where we're going next." Instead, he was going to Colombia and has not visited Bolivia to this day.
*The Commemorator: On June 6, 1984, on the 40th anniversary of the day when Americans died to liberate Europe, Reagan paid tribute to these heroes in speeches widely regarded as among his best. His voice filling with emotion as he spoke to aging Allied veterans at Pointe du Hoc, where 225 U.S. Rangers scaled a 130-foot cliff with borrowed ladders and grappling hooks, Reagan said: "These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. They are the heroes who helped end a war."
*The Tax Hater: Reagan "loathes taxes," says a former aide, a personal view that intimates trace to his post-World War II acting days when he started making big money at a time individuals couldn't average income and marginal tax rates reached 90 percent. Speaking to business executives at the White House on March 13, 1985, Reagan promised to veto any tax increase "that Congress might even think of sending up." Using a line made famous by movie actor Clint Eastwood, Reagan said, "And I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers. Go ahead, make my day."
*Bitburg and Beyond: The most emotional controversy of Reagan's presidency arose over his decision to visit a West German military cemetery where the graves included those of SS soldiers. In the face of protests from Jewish and veterans groups Reagan went ahead with the visit, although the ceremony at the Bitburg cemetery was abbreviated.
He also attended a commemorative ceremony at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where he quoted from the diary of Anne Frank, who died there, and denounced the "monstrous, incomprehensible horror" of the Holocaust. Reagan concluded, " . . . Rising above all this cruelty, out of this tragic and nightmarish time, beyond the pain the suffering for all time, we can and must pledge: Never again."
*The Cancer Patient: The fate of the Reagan presidency seemed in doubt on July 14, 1985, when surgeons at Bethesda Naval Hospital removed a cancerous tumor from his colon. Before the operation presidential power was provisionally transfered to Vice President Bush. But a week to the day after his operation Reagan, holding hands with his wife, walked back into the White House residence while supporters waved balloons and posters, one of which said, "The Gipper Comes Through -- Again." On Aug. 24, Reagan was back on horseback at his California ranch.
*The Summiteer: On Nov. 21, 1985, the president and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev appeared together on a stage in Geneva to express a joint determination to curb the arms race and improve U.S.-Soviet relations. It was a new departure for a president who had denounced the Soviets as "the evil empire" and the "focus of evil" and Reagan recognized its irony. "I bet the hard-liners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands," he said quietly to Gorbachev before the two leaders read their summit statements.
Two weeks later Reagan confided in a speech that he had told Gorbachev in their meetings that the two leaders would quickly forget their differences if aliens attacked Earth from another planet. He did not say what Gorbachev had told him in response.
*Forward to the Stars: On Jan. 28, Reagan was conferring with his aides about the State of the Union speech he was supposed to deliver that night when an aide burst in and told him that the space shuttle Challenger had exploded. Reagan, though shocked by the tragedy, vowed within the hour to continue the manned space flight program.sk
Aides and congressional leaders talked the president into postponing his State of the Union Message for a week. Instead, Reagan gave a nationally televised speech in which he comforted his fellow Americans for their loss and vowed to go forward. "The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted," he said. "It belongs to the brave."