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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Television HIstory: Ronald Reagan Makes Final Appearance as an Actor in 1967

Ronald Reagan makes his final TV appearance as an actor, November 24, 1967, in the Death Valley Days episode, "A Turkey for the President"

No television writer could have conjured up more irony than the title of Ronald Reagan's last acting tour on television, than in the Death Valley Days episode that aired just a few months after he was sworn in as Governor of California ("A Turkey for the President").

Ronald Reagan's career in the media, though derided by critics, could be classified as no less than phenomenal as he scored a hat trick with successes in both radio, films, and television. In the 1930's it was "Dutch" Reagan, the sportscaster who called Chicago Cubs games on the 50,000 watt WHO-AM in Des Moines Iowa. In 1937, while traveling with the Cubs in California, he auditioned for Warner Brother's Studios and landed an acting contract. For the next 20 years, Reagan plodded along in Hollywood, never quite reaching megastar status, but occasionally getting good reviews in Westerns and War Movies, two formats that were popular with cinema audiences.

As the Hollywood Studio System dissolved in the late 1950's, Reagan transitioned into television, mostly in Western roles on shows such as Wagon Train, Ford Theater, Schlitz Playhouse of the Stars and the Kraft Suspense Theater. He hosted General Electric Theatre (1956 to 1964) which was the third highest rated show for 1956. As part of his contract with General Electric, he toured GE plants around the country and gave pro-American business speeches as a morale booster for GE employees. His next TV series was as frequent recurring guest star in Death Valley Days, a syndicated western anthology series(1964 to 1967). By the late 1940's, Reagan had become increasingly interested in politics, which lead him to run for and win the Presidency of the Screen Actors Guild first in 1947, and in 1959. He was elected Governor of California in 1967.

During the time he ran for Governor, Death Valley Days was not permitted to be aired in California. However, once elected, his final role as an actor was seen with the future President portraying the banker William Chapman Ralston, the man who single-handedly saved San Francisco from financial ruin in the 1800's by perpetrating a small deception on his banks' depositors. The real life Ralston temporarily borrowed some coins from the Federal Mint and put them on display in his bank, leaving depositors to believe they were bank assets; this to prevent a run on his bank. In the adapted teleplay, Ralston saved California from financial jeopardy, but in real life Ralston was convicted of Fraud and was sentenced to prison. President Grant pardoned him, though; so just as years later the President Ronald Reagan managed to slip the Iran-Contra funds circuitously to Anti-Communist fighters in Nicaragua, the actor Ronald Reagan ran a benign con on the citizens of California and landed like a cat on all fours. And though he never won an Oscar or an Emmy, Ronald Reagan did win the best prize of all; he won the Presidency of the United States.