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Mr. T dressed as Santa. Nancy Reagan sat on his lap. It was the most shocking first lady photo ever.

Mr. T played Santa Claus at the White House in December 1983 for the annual press tour hosted by first lady Nancy Reagan. (Video: ABC News VideoSource/Getty Images)

Mr. T was growing frustrated.

He had flown all this way, pulled his signature gold chains over a California-style sleeveless crimson Santa suit and even growled through some “ho, ho, hos.” A sack slung over his shoulder carried superhero dolls from his “A-TEAM” show, and the TV personality was ready to hear who had been naughty or nice.

And yet, nobody would sit on Santa T’s lap.

“Now I come all the way to the White House, and nobody wants to come,” he said. “Nobody wants to come.”

To be fair, this crowd was a bit of a divergence from his usual cult following of kids.

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It was a few weeks before Christmas in 1983 — 35 years ago — and first lady Nancy Reagan had invited the Washington news corps to tour the executive mansion’s holiday decorations and meet her eccentric guest of honor, who she invited to the White House after reading about his anti-drug messaging to children. Her “Just Say No” campaign was a year underway, and the first lady was working to shed the elitist, tight-laced reputation she had acquired in the early years of her husband’s presidency.

Mr. T, a native of Chicago’s Southside and a professional wrestler turned actor, was a soft soul packaged in a tough guy persona. He knew how to connect.

And now Mr. T was at the White House, dressed as Santa Claus, trying to get renowned UPI reporter Helen Thomas to take a seat on his beefy thigh. She politely declined, as did another woman. A male photographer was convinced.

“You print something bad about me or the first family, and I will be calling upon you,” Mr. T said. “If I don’t get you, my doll will get you.”

The room laughed, the photographer left, and Mr. T’s lap was once again empty.

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Behind him, Reagan stood contentedly. She looked poised and petite next to his kitschy get-up. But her guy was all alone, asking for a lapmate. So she paused and looked toward the media people.

Then Reagan swooped.

“All right, that’s right!” Mr. T said as the first lady settled in. “Tom Selleck and Burt Reynolds . . . eat your heart out.”

But Reagan was not done. She leaned over and kissed his half-shaved head.

Cameras clicked. The media people laughed. A wild, perhaps the most wild, first lady photo ever taken was captured in an instant — and a lifetime friendship was established.

“It’s so unexpected,” said Michelle Gullion, the archivist with the National First Ladies' Library. “It’s a side of Nancy Reagan. She just wasn’t known for her playfulness at all.”

Sheila Tate, the first lady’s former press secretary, said she could not recall the specifics of Mr. T’s White House invitation. She does remember her children were huge fans, and the guest of honor gifted her Mr. T car fresheners. Tate said it was her job to escort him around the mansion.

When the first lady sat on his lap, even Mr. T seemed shocked.

“Oh wow! Now that’ll start some scandals,” he declared. “Thank you Mrs. Reagan. Wow, she kissed me!"

“It’s like that commercial,” Mr. T said. “She kissed me, and nothing seems the same.”

From Jackie Kennedy's "Nutcracker Suite" to Hillary Clinton's "Santa's Workshop," each first lady has put her own spin on the White House Christmas decorations. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

After their photo ops with the media were over, Tate took Mr. T to the White House mess hall, a scene she writes about in her book, “Lady in Red: An Intimate Portrait of Nancy Reagan.” Within five minutes of their arrival for lunch, Vice President George H.W. Bush appeared with his own staff photographer, eager for a moment with the “A-TEAM” star.

Later that evening, Tate remembers attending a staff Christmas party at the Bushes' home. She noticed that on top of the piano, the vice president’s photograph with Mr. T was already framed and on display.

“He was such a hoot,” she said of the TV star.

And the first lady’s spontaneous peck that day?

“Well . . . it was unusual,” Tate said. “She was in the spirit.”

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Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian at the National First Ladies’ Library, said Reagan had been depicted as “formal and rigid and conservative, in her clothing, physicality and demeanor.”

“Every so often, she did things that radically went against type, and I think she did it because she enjoyed it herself,” Anthony said. “She liked the mischievousness of it and the impishness of it, and because it did shock people.”

The day after Reagan and Mr. T put on a show at the White House, their photo was splashed in newspapers. On the front page of the Style section in The Washington Post, the famed moment was published alongside a headline that read: “On the Knee of Santa T.

On the Knee of Santa T

“It just seemed so completely out of character,” Anthony said. “But you know, I’ve seen footage of her trying to breakdance.”

Like many first ladies, those who knew Reagan well said she was willing to get a little weird for the good of the cause — which included being lifted to the basketball rim at an Indiana Pacers game so she could serve a slam dunk, and guest-starring in an episode of “Diff’rent Strokes.”

Her work with “Just Say No” also included a continued partnership with her friend Mr. T, who later appeared in a memorable, slightly aggressive PSA on behalf of her anti-drug efforts.

When the first lady died in 2016 at the age of 94, Mr. T attended her funeral — a private event that was by invitation only.

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“I was not surprised that their friendship continued,” Tate said. “Nancy Reagan, if you became her friend, you were her friend for life. And that’s the way they were. They never lost contact.”

Mr. T could not be reached for this story, but he did explain his affection for Nancy Reagan in tweets after she died.

He called his work with the first lady the “highlight of my career.”

“I will continue her work in trying to keep kids from the Dangers of Drugs,” Mr. T wrote. “GOD Bless You First Lady.”


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