A Movie Star First Lady: Nancy Reagan’s Hollywood Acting Career

The year they went from being Hollywood stars to political figures, Ronald and Nancy Reagan arriving for the 1966 Ambassador's Ball at the new Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.

The year they went from being Hollywood stars to political figures, Ronald and Nancy Reagan arriving for the 1966 Ambassador’s Ball at the new Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.

You might have caught Michelle Obama on Youtube during one of her television appearances with Jimmy Fallon or Ellen DeGeneres.

Michelle Obama on icarly.

Michelle Obama on icarly.

Or maybe you caught the web episode of the kids show iCarly when she made a guest appearance.

Betty Ford rehearsing her scene with Mary Tyler Moore, 1976

Betty Ford rehearsing her scene with Mary Tyler Moore, 1976

Perhaps you vaguely recall that Betty Ford once made a cameo appearance on the popular Mary Tyler Moore Show in the Seventies. If you’re a real movie buff, you may even know about a few seconds of footage of a dance sequence in a 1930s film version of the novel Vanity Fair (the movie’s title was actually Becky Sharpe).

In a screen shot, future First Lady Pat Nixon sits in the background of the 1935 Hollywood film Becky Sharp in which she appeared as an uncredited extra.

In a screen shot, future First Lady Pat Nixon sits in the background of the 1935 Hollywood film Becky Sharp in which she appeared as an uncredited extra.

Watching from the sideline as the film star Miriam Hopkins waltzed across the ballroom, you might have spotted a vaguely familiar movie extra by the name of Thelma Ryan.

Although she appeared for but a few brief seconds, she made a good day’s wage while working her way through the University of Southern California – one her way to eventually becoming presidential spouse Pat Nixon.

A poster for Next Voice You Hear with co-stars James Whitmore and Nancy Davis.

A poster for Next Voice You Hear with co-stars James Whitmore and Nancy Davis.

One First Lady of the United States, however, was fully and gainfully employed as a bona fide Hollywood actress for over a decade, from 1949 to 1962, appearing in a dozen feature films and even more theatrical dramas on television series.

If you see her name on a poster or the credits, you might not realize right away that the actress Nancy Davis is the very same who became far more widely known in her role as Mrs. Ronald Reagan.

Nancy Davis in a Hollywood publicity still.

Nancy Davis in a Hollywood publicity still.

Following in the footsteps of her mother, Edith Luckett Robbins Davis, Nancy Davis Reagan became involved in theater while enrolled at Chicago’s Girls Latin School (and performed in a play entitled First Lady) and then went on to graduate from Smith College with a degree in dramatic arts.

Nancy Reagan went to Hollywood to make a screen test in 1949, got a contract from MGM, and made a dozen feature films and just as many television series guest star roles.

First Lady Nancy Reagan chats with her old MGM colleague Elizabeth Taylor  in the White House family quarters, following a a 1987 private dinner for Japan's crown prince.

First Lady Nancy Reagan chats with her old MGM colleague Elizabeth Taylor in the White House family quarters, following a a 1987 private dinner for Japan’s crown prince.

Along the way, she befriended Liz Taylor and Gene Kelly, co-starred with Barbara Stanwyck and James Whitmore, and met and married fellow actor Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, on whose board of directors Nancy Reagan would sit for a decade.

While most of her work is now largely forgotten, she received considerably positive reviews from publications like the New York Times and Washington Post.

For a far more detailed account of Nancy Reagan’s surprisingly ignored career as a professional film and television actress, to see photographs of her starring in feature movies and for a definitive list of the dates, titles and roles of work, go to the larger article written by this author, at the new National First Ladies Library Blog.

Unique and topical stories on  First Ladies will continue to appear on Carl Anthony Online as one of the numerous categories about American culture, often intended to provide the larger or untold context of current events and customs.

On the new National First Ladies Library Blog, however, one will find more frequent commentary, analysis, scholarship and adapted media and public inquiry responses focused just on those individuals who were presidential spouses and hostesses, and the social  issues, public controversies, personal tragedies, statistical facts, historical legacies, unanswered questions and other facets which define them.

Like Carl Anthony Online, subscription to the National First Ladies Library Blog is free and subscribers are alerted by email whenever a new article has posted. Those interested can register with their names and emails on the front page, where previous articles run below new ones continuously.

In addition, those interested in the subject of First Ladies can find the world’s richest possible resources of information on the internet at the general National First Ladies Library Website. Here the media, general public, students, scholars, and history buffs alike will find detailed biographies of each First Lady, the entries being updated as new documentation emerges as well as illustrated, some with sound and visual recordings of First Ladies. There is also a detailed online bibliography to serve as a starting point for research, the NFLL Newsletter, information and images of new exhibits at the physical site of the NFLL National Historic Site in Canton, Ohio, as well as the Saxton-McKinley House, the restored Victorian home which was the residence of longest occupancy of President William McKinley and served as his “Summer White House” from 1897 to 1900. 

The general public can also sign up for NFLL membership on the National First Ladies Library Website.

Nancy Davis and Ronald Reagans at the 1952 Oscars, just two weeks and two days after they were married.

Nancy Davis and Ronald Reagans at the 1952 Oscars, just two weeks and two days after they were married.


Categories: First Ladies, Hollywood, The Reagans

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4 replies »

  1. Where in the film, Becky Sharp,’ does Mrs. Nixon appear? The film is on YouTube, can you tell us the precise scene? Does the Nixon Library & Museum sell DVDs of the movie?

    • I’m not sure anyone sells that old movie – a bit dull compared to the timelessly phenomenal story of Vanity Fair! Pat Nixon is in a dance sequence in a large ballroom. She is spotted both sitting along the wall (as in the grainy screenshot in the article) and dancing.

  2. Do we know what happened to Mrs. Reagan’s biological father and if she ever had contact with him after her mother separated and divorced him?

    • It is not entirely certain, as far as I know. But I think a very reliable source is a book called Make-Believe by Laurence Leamer who is a stickler for accuracy of factual detail. He prints a photograph of father and daughter from 1941, writing that while she was a Smith College student in Northhampton, Massachusetts that she made visits to him and her stepmother in Pittsfield, which was relatively close. It might suggest that she did so without the knowledge of her mother; however, Robbins also maintained cordial, if distant, contact with Edie Davis and her husband.

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