California cowboy Ronald Reagan acted the part and lived it too.
As a presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan campaigned for lower taxes and shrinking the size of government. As an actor, he campaigned to appear in westerns.
“Somehow working outdoors amid beautiful scenery and much of the time on horseback never has seemed like work to me. It’s like getting paid to play cowboys and Indians,” he once said.
Turned out, his political campaigns were more successful than the one he waged in Hollywood. Out of 69 films in Reagan’s filmography, just six of them paid him to play cowboys and Indians.
Reagan did get to play cowboy quite a bit at Rancho del Cielo (Sky Ranch or Heaven’s Ranch), the 688-acre spread he acquired in 1974 in the Santa Ynez Mountains northwest of Santa Barbara, California. “From the first day we saw it, Rancho del Cielo cast a spell over us,” Reagan once said. “No place before or since has ever given Nancy and me the joy and serenity it does.” Nancy would say that if you wanted to understand Ronnie, you needed to visit the ranch.
During his time in office, the ranch served as a retreat for the 40th president and his first lady and came to be known as the Western White House. Here, the couple could relax — and ride. They both loved horses. His favorite was a gray Anglo Arab named El Alamein given to him by the president of Mexico; Nancy’s was a horse named No Strings.
The Reagans received notable guests at the ranch, including British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II, and Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev; the latter was famously photographed at the ranch wearing a cowboy hat.
After leaving the White House in 1994, the Reagans moved to a home in Bel-Air, California, and kept the ranch as a retreat. Three years after Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1995, the ranch was sold. It is now private and preserved by Young America’s Foundation, which also maintains the public Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara.
Find out more at reaganranch.yaf.org.
Santa Fe Trail (1940)
A critically acclaimed role in Knute Rockne, All American (1940) gave Reagan a catchphrase he’d keep for the rest of his life — “just win one for the Gipper” — and a chance to play better parts in better films. That same year, he appeared as Gen. George Custer in Santa Fe Trail, directed by Michael Curtiz. The onscreen pairing of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland worked again as it did in Curtiz’s swashbuckler classic, The Adventures of Robin Hood.
As often happened, Reagan played a supporting role as the hero’s friend — the one that didn’t ride off into the sunset with the woman he loved. That billing fit him so well that when Reagan later ran for governor of California, Warner Bros. boss Jack Warner reportedly didn’t endorse the casting: “Jimmy Stewart for governor,” he said. “Reagan for best friend.”
The Bad Man (1941)
It’s 70 minutes of scenery-chewing from Wallace Beery as Mexican bandit Pancho Lopez, and Lionel Barrymore as the patriarch of a ranch about to be lost. Reagan played Barrymore’s grandson and had every scene he was in stolen by the outsized personalities around him. But at least in this one, he did get the girl.
The Last Outpost (1951)
By the 1950s, Reagan was living on a ranch, loved to ride and breed horses, and had developed an enthusiastic interest in the history of the American West. Perhaps that was enough for studios to finally put him in some cowboy films. The Last Outpost was his first lead role in a western, and he was even allowed to ride his favorite mare onscreen.
According to The Motion Picture Guide, the wranglers on set doubted his horse’s ability to cope with the heavy workload and the punishing Arizona heat. But at the end of the first day, most of the studio’s horses were out of commission, while Reagan’s mare was still going strong. The film was a hit thanks to fast-paced action scenes, vibrant cinematography, and strong supporting performances from Rhonda Fleming and Noah Beery.
Law and Order (1953)
This was the fourth film version of W.R. Burnett’s novel Saint Johnson, about a two-fisted sheriff cleaning up a corrupt town. It was another western lead for Reagan, and a role that fit him well. Still, most fans prefer the 1932 version starring Walter Huston and co-written by Huston’s son, John.
Cattle Queen of Montana (1954)
This may be Reagan’s most famous western thanks to its billing on a theater marquee in the film Back to the Future. When Marty McFly time-travels back to the 1950s and tells Doc Brown that Reagan will be president in the 1980s, Doc is incredulous: “Then who’s vice president? Jerry Lewis?” Reagan played an Army officer assigned to help rancher Barbara Stanwyck drive a herd of cattle through Indian country. The film (shot in Montana’s stunning Glacier National Park) has its moments, even if there wasn’t much romantic chemistry between the leads. Stanwyck’s stunt work impressed the local Blackfeet tribe members who appear in the film as extras — they made her a blood sister of the tribe and gave her the name “Princess Many Victories.” That’s what Reagan always called her when they’d reconnect.
Tennessee’s Partner (1955)
Reagan’s final western (and third-to-last film) was a loose adaptation of a Bret Harte story about the friendship between gambler Tennessee (John Payne) and Cowpoke (Reagan), a stranger in town who saves Tennessee’s life. Director Allan Dwan considered this one of his best films, and with Rhonda Fleming back in the mix and a nice blend of romance, suspense, and action, it’s easy to see why. This may be Reagan’s most underrated film and performance.
Photography: Images courtesy White House/Alamy Stock Photo, Wikicommons, Ronald Reagan Archive, Paramount Pictures/Ronald Grant Archive, Entertainment Pictures, United Archives GMBH, Photo 12
From our July 2020 issue.