Commentary: Nancy Reagan deserves SAG nod

Guild should recognize actress-humanitarian's achievements

SAG's annual awards show isn't until January, but the guild already is gearing up for the big event. Last week, it announced it had begun the selection process of SAG members who will select the nominees.

The top honor handed out each year by SAG is its Life Achievement Award. The award has gone to some of Hollywood's top stars, like Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Audrey Hepburn, Kirk Douglas, Clint Eastwood and Iggy Wolfington.

Iggy Wolfington? As an actor, Ignatius Wolfington appeared on a lot of TV shows and on Broadway, but his main claim to fame -- his true calling -- was as a humanitarian. For years, he was the much-loved West Coast representative of the Actors Fund of America, the town's oldest charitable organization.

That's the thing about the SAG Life Achievement Award: It doesn't just go to great actors, it also goes to actors who have made a difference in the lives of others and "for outstanding achievement in fostering the finest ideals of the acting profession."

That's why I would propose Nancy Reagan for the award this year.

As an actress, her career was only so-so. Her most memorable film role was as Ronald Reagan's fiancee in 1957's "Hellcats of the Navy." But it was in another role opposite Reagan that she achieved her greatest fame: as his wife and first lady.

"I knew that being his wife was the role I wanted to play," she famously remarked.

And play it she did. Many people close to Ronald Reagan have said he would never would become president if he hadn't married her. He was a good talker, but he didn't have the drive. Nancy had the drive.

As president and first lady, they weren't my cup of tea. I hated his politics, and I didn't think much of her signature "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign, either.

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But they certainly made a difference. No other actor, and no other union leader, ever has become a U.S. president. And no other actress has ever become first lady. That alone qualifies her for "outstanding achievement in fostering the finest ideals of the acting profession."

Besides, SAG kind of owes it to them.

In 1981, SAG's Honors and Tributes Committee, the outfit that selects the Life Achievement recipient, picked Ronald Reagan to receive the guild's top honor. But 1981 was a bad year for unions; it was the year the president crushed the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization when they went on strike.

It was a stupid and illegal strike. Under their contract, workers were expressly forbidden from going on strike, for obvious reasons of public safety. But because they'd been one of the few unions in the country that had supported Reagan during his presidential campaign the previous year, perhaps they reasoned they could get away with it.

They were wrong. Reagan decertified PATCO and dealt what many believe was a crushing blow to the American labor movement.

Not surprisingly and perhaps justifiably, SAG executives, in solidarity with PATCO and the rest of American labor, overrode the committee's selection and yanked Reagan's award; in fact, no Life Achievement Award was presented that year, the last time the guild did not hand out its most prestigious honor.

Even so, Ronald Reagan still loved the guild, for which he'd served as president longer than almost anyone else. Friends of his have told me he read the Hollywood trade papers nearly every day while in the White House and that he still followed news about his old union.

Nancy had nothing to do with the PATCO debacle. As first lady, she was dignified, elegant and certainly a tribute to the acting profession. (In polls, she often was voted the world's most popular woman.) As first lady, she visited veterans, the elderly and the handicapped and worked with several charities, helping to popularize the Foster Grandparents Program.

She was the first first lady to address the United Nations General Assembly, warning about the dangers of international drug trafficking, and she took her case to the airwaves with appearances on "Dynasty" and "Diff'rent Strokes" to promote her anti-drug message.

She served on the California Arts Council, and, as a former first lady, she distinguished herself when she stood up and said no to the right-wing nut jobs who opposed embryonic stem-cell research. She even said no to the Reagan Legacy Project, dedicated to putting her husband's name on every building and freeway it can find, when the group came up with the wacky idea to take Franklin Roosevelt's likeness off the dime and replace it with her husband's.

Her credentials as a humanitarian are not insignificant. A breast cancer survivor, she spoke out about women's health, and in 1987, after she had a mastectomy, more women than ever before went in for mammograms. An outspoken supporter of research for Alzheimer's disease, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, the nation's highest civilian honor.

While SAG's selection committee is at it, they might consider presenting the award jointly to Nancy and Ronald Reagan. (They gave it to Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in 1985 and to Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee in 2000.)

If ever there was a son of SAG, Ronald Reagan was him. If he hadn't been SAG president, he almost certainly never would have been elected governor of California; if he hadn't been a governor, he'd never have been president.

SAG, which does not endorse political candidates, has wrongly been labeled a bastion of liberalism by misinformed pundits. Presenting its highest award to Ronald and Nancy might go a long way toward dispelling that myth.

Besides, it'd make good TV.

David Robb is a regular commentator for The Hollywood Reporter. He has covered Hollywood's unions for more than 20 years and is the author of "Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies." He can be reached at