Before her husband’s policies made history, before she told the world to “just say no” to drugs, before she set foot in the White House or California governor’s mansion, Nancy Reagan was a lady of Hollywood. From 1948 to 1962, she appeared in movies and television shows, often playing the role of the loyal wife — the position she would come to be remembered for off-screen. She died March 6 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 94.
Her acting career began in her Chicago high school, where she played the lead role in George S. Kaufman’s play “First Lady” during her senior year.
“I don’t recall much about the story, but I do remember that I wore a black dress with a white collar, and that when my classmates forgot their lines, I was able to jump in and start talking until we got back on track,” Reagan wrote in her 1989 memoir, “My Turn.” “Everyone was terribly impressed — including me.”
Back then, Nancy Reagan was Nancy Davis, a girl trying to fill the shoes of her mother, Edith Luckett Davis, a Broadway actress who went by “Lucky.” Much of Reagan’s childhood was spent living with relatives in Maryland as her mother traveled for her career. Nancy wrote that she was always star-struck by her mother and her mother’s friends, including Katharine Hepburn.
“When I told [Hepburn] I wanted to be an actress, she sent me a long letter warning me that acting was a very difficult profession and that I had seen only the glamorous parts. Mother’s friends were stars, she reminded me, but most would-be actresses ended up as waitresses and receptionists.”
But not Reagan. Although she wasn’t considered a natural in her first gigs in New York, she had a knack for charming the right people (including Clark Gable, whom she dated for a week). She soon had a contract with MGM Studios. According to IMDb, her first feature film was “The Doctor and the Girl” (1949).
“There are many beautiful women in the life of a handsome young doctor!” the trailer for the film begins. This is the strange love story of one of them!” Reagan played Mariette Esmond, the sister of the handsome doctor.
In 1950, she starred as the female lead in “The Next Voice You Hear,” a movie about the voice of God being heard on the radio. As a reminder of how far women and Hollywood have come, she wrote in her memoir that she thinks she was the first woman to be “visibly pregnant” on film.
“Until then you just wore a smock to indicate your condition. But because this picture was supposed to be highly realistic, I was fitted with a special pregnancy pad,” she wrote.
Just before “The Next Voice You Hear,” Reagan had scored a small part in “East Side, West Side” (1949), an Ava Gardner movie. One night after work, she came across her name in the newspaper on a list of “communist sympathizers in Hollywood.” Concerned about what her parents would think, she rushed to talk to Mervyn LeRoy, the film’s director. He offered to connect her with the president of the Screen Actors Guild: Ronald Reagan.
He called her the next day and offered to take her to dinner on the Sunset Strip to discuss the problem.
“Two hours later, my first thought when I opened the door was, This is wonderful,” she wrote. “He looks as good in person as he does on the screen! (That wasn’t something you could take for granted in Hollywood.)”
Two years later, they were married.
Five years later, they were co-stars. The 1957 film “Hellcats of the Navy” starred Ronald Reagan as World War II submarine Cmdr. Casey Abbott. Nancy Reagan starred as nurse Helen Blair, the love interest who complicates his personal and professional life. It was the only film they performed in together.
She acted in one more film the next year before transitioning to smaller roles on television shows as she raised her children.
Her last TV appearance as an actress was for the series “Wagon Train” in 1962. The spotlight, of course, would come back to her very soon.