Nancy Reagan, Actress Turned First Lady, Dies at 94

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Nancy Reagan

She appeared in 12 films, then gave up show business in the early 1960s for “the role that I wanted to play” — the wife of Ronald Reagan.

Nancy Reagan, the actress-turned-first lady who would take her "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign to mass audiences through appearances on Diff'rent Strokes and other shows, has died. She was 94.

The former Nancy Davis, the second wife of Ronald Reagan, the 40th U.S. president and 33rd governor of California, died Sunday morning of congestive heart failure at home in Los Angeles, Melissa Giller of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation confirmed.

Director-producer Mervyn LeRoy fixed up Nancy with fellow actor (and then-Screen Actors Guild president) Ron for a date in 1951. They were married on March 4, 1952, in a small church in Studio City, with actor William Holden and his wife, Ardis, there as the only attendants.

The petite, doe-eyed Nancy appeared as an actress in 12 movies and several TV shows, usually portraying faithful, patient and understanding daughters, sisters, mothers or wives. Her only movie appearance opposite Ron came in the World War II-set Hellcats of the Navy (1957), in which he played a submarine commander and she a nurse.

She acted on the big screen in just one more film after that — 1958’s Crash Landing — and so did he, in The Killers (1964). He announced his campaign to run for governor of California in 1965 and served until 1975.

Nancy had an opportunity to play the title role in Albert Brooks’ Mother (1996), but she turned down the writer-director, saying she needed to care for her ailing husband, then plagued with Alzheimer’s. (Doris Day also said no, but Debbie Reynolds signed on and earned a Golden Globe nomination.)

She did appear as herself on the TV series Diff’rent Strokes in 1978 and Dynasty in 1981. In the 1983 Diff'rent Strokes episode "The Reporter," fledgling journalist Arnold goes undercover and discovers a student selling drugs at school. But he refuses to name the story's source, attracting the attention of the First Lady, who comes and speaks to Arnold's class, learning that a surprising number of his classmates have experimented with drugs. She proves her affection for the kids by allowing them to come shake her hand. She was nominated for TV Land Awards for the performance in both 2003 and 2007, losing both times.

While her husband, who was 11 years older than she, was governor of California, Nancy began focusing on the fight against drug and alcohol abuse among young people. That carried into her White House years, when she championed the “Just Say No” campaign.

She also popped up a couple of times lip-synching as part of the famous/infamous "Stop the Madness" video, a Reagan administration-endorsed anti-drug screed featuring, among others, Herb Alpert, a very wired monkey, Whitney Houston, David Hasselhoff and The Hollywood Reporter contributor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

After the couple left the White House following two terms in 1989, the Reagans returned to live in California, splitting time between their Bel-Air home and the 350-acre ranch near Santa Barbara that Ron purchased in 1951. He died in June 2004 at age 93.

His first marriage was to Oscar-winning actress Jane Wyman (Johnny Belinda) from 1940-48.

 

Nancy Reagan was born Anne Frances Robbins on July 6, 1921, in New York City. Her parents divorced when she was young, and as her mother Edith pursued an acting career, she was raised by an aunt and uncle in Bethesda, Md. After her mother remarried, she was adopted by her stepfather, Loyal Davis, a prominent neurosurgeon and champion of conservative politics.

She studied drama at Smith College, and, with the encouragement of her mother, set her sites on acting. Following graduation, she toured with a road company before landing a role on Broadway in the 1946 musical Lute Song, which starred Mary Martin and a young Yul Brenner. She then appeared in a Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse adaptation of a play called Ramshackle Inn and attracted the attention of Hollywood.

She moved west and landed a seven-year contract with MGM starting at $250 a week after Spencer Tracy, who was friends with her mother, went to bat for Nancy and convinced the legendary George Cukor to direct her screen test.

She landed an uncredited role in the film Portrait of Jennie (1948), starring Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones. The following year, she received her first screen credits in The Doctor and the Girl, playing the daughter of a Park Avenue neurosurgeon (Charles Coburn), and East Side, West Side, opposite Barbara Stanwyck.

She played a child psychiatrist in the murder mystery Shadow on the Wall (1950); a pregnant wife opposite James Whitmore in William Wellman’s The Next Voice You Hear (1950), for which she scored glowing reviews; a war widow in Night Into Morning (1951); a small-town schoolteacher with Fredric March in It’s a Big Country: An American Anthology (1951); the mother of a bratty boy in Talk About a Stranger (1952); the sister of a shell-shocked war veteran in Shadow in the Sky (1952); and the wife of a mad scientist in Donovan’s Brain (1953).

She also appeared in such series as Climax!, The Tall Man, General Electric Theater, 87th Precinct and, in an episode that aired in December 1962, Wagon Train.

After that, she retired from acting. “I knew that being [Reagan’s] wife was the role that I wanted to play,” she said. She also raised the couple’s two children, Patti and Ron. (Her husband had two children, Maureen and the adopted Michael, from his marriage to Wyman.)

As first lady, Nancy used the White House as a venue to showcase young performers, especially in the PBS series In Performance at the White House.

In 1987, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and spoke candidly about a decision to have a mastectomy. Two years later, her autobiography, My Turn, was published; in it, she addressed her reliance on astrology.

Following Ron’s presidency, the Reagans were frequent diners at Chasen’s, their old Hollywood haunt where decades earlier director John Huston had given her a dinner party to welcome the young actress to town and where Ron would later propose to her.

A spokesperson for the family said she will be buried at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., next to her husband. In lieu of flowers, she requested that contributions be made to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Foundation.

In June 2001, Nancy talked about her life with her husband and his battle with Alzheimer’s in an interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer.

“You certainly wish that it was different,” she told Sawyer. “But, you learn something out of everything, and you come to realize more than ever that we’re all here for a certain space of time, and then it’s going to be over, and you better make this count.”

Duane Byrge and Daniel Fienberg contributed to this report.

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