Her Hollywood career only consisted of 11 films over a decade-long period from 1949 to 1958, along with another dozen or so guest appearances on such TV shows as Climax!, G.E. Theater and Zane Grey Theater, concluding with a 1962 role on Wagon Train (not counting a cameo on a certain ’80s sitcom, but more on that later). And if that was where the public story of Nancy Davis ended, her death on Sunday at the age of 94 would have made but the smallest of ripples in the national and international entertainment news. Of course, as you all know, there’s much, much more to the former MGM contract player’s life than that.
In March of 1952, following a three-year dating relationship that one Tinseltown press account described as “the romance of a couple who have no vices,” Davis wed former Warner Bros. leading man Ronald Reagan in a private ceremony (their only guests were friends and married fellow actors William Holden and Brenda Marshall, who served as best man and matron of honor, respectively). And so began a half-century-plus marriage that would take them from studio shooting stages to the California governor’s mansion and, ultimately, the White House.
While she once joked that her acting career was simply “something to do until the right man came along,” Nancy Reagan had a lifelong interest in the performing arts, with several pre-Hollywood stage roles to her credit. What’s more, her relatively brief movie career demonstrated that MGM had confidence in her abilities, even if the studio tended to present her in devoted, understanding wife and mother parts. These were parts, however, which spoke to her and which were reflected in her off-screen life as Ronald Reagan’s spouse, friend and confidant in what the couple’s good friend and fellow performer Charlton Heston called “the greatest love affair in the history of the American presidency.” Following her debut in a 1940 anti-polio short, The Crippler, and an uncredited role as a teenage art gallery patron (alongside Anne Francis and Nancy Olson) in 1948s Portrait of Jennie, some of her key film appearances were…
Her first co-starring turn, as the sister of young physician Glenn Ford in The Doctor and the Girl (1949), also featuring Charles Coburn and Janet Leigh.
As the “typical American wife” who, along with husband James Whitmore and son Gary Gray, hears a voice claiming to be God speaking by radio to the world in the offbeat Cold War fantasy The Next Voice You Hear (1950).
As a psychiatrist trying to help a traumatized girl (Gigi Perreau) who witnessed her mother’s murder regain her memory of the incident in the suspenseful Shadow on the Wall (1950), with Ann Sothern and Zachary Scott.
Donovan’s Brain (1953), an intriguing sci-fi thriller in which the mind of Davis’s scientist husband (Lew Ayres) is taken over by a dead man’s disembodied brain kept alive in Ayres’ laboratory.
The WWII drama Hellcats of the Navy (1957), the only film Ronald and Nancy Reagan made together, in which her Army nurse is caught in a romantic rivalry between a submarine commander (Ronnie) and an officer (Harry Lauter) serving under him.
Her finally movie turn, in 1958’s Crash Landing. A precursor to the ’70s “disaster film” genre, the aerial drama found her airline pilot husband (Gary Merrill) struggling to bring a crippled Lisbon-to-New York passenger jet down safely over the ocean.
And, of course, TV viewers of a certain age will remember Reagan’s special appearance as herself in a 1983 anti-drug-themed episode of Diff’rent Stokes. She never completely shook the acting bug, it seems. In fact, filmmaker Albert Brooks approached the former First Lady about playing the title role in his 1996 comedy Mother. It’s said that the one-time MGM starlet was tempted to step in front of the camera once more, but couldn’t take time away from caring for President Reagan, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease two years earlier. Hollywood’s ultimate “power couple” would remain inseparable until his death in 2004, and later this week the actress-turned-politician’s wife once known as Nancy Davis will be buried alongside her husband at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.