Ronald Reagan first came to work for GE in 1954. When he joined GE, Thomas Evans explains in The Education of Ronald Reagan, his principal role was to host the General Electric Theater on television. Evans writes that GE Theater soon became the country’s top-rated Sunday evening prime time television program, and one of the reasons for the show’s popularity was the stars it was able to attract, in large part because of Reagan’s popularity among his fellow actors.
According to Evans, 50 Academy Award winners appeared on the show, many for the first or only time on television. Evans explains that Reagan’s Screen Actors Guild background had endeared him to a wide spectrum of of professionals of all ages, “everyone from James Dean to Ethel Barrymore.”
John Meroney is the author of a forthcoming account of Reagan in Hollywood. (Until Meroney completes his book, interested readers can turn to Peter Schweizer’s Reagan’s War, which opens with a compelling account of Reagan’s role in facing down the Hollywood Communists.) The Atlantic has posted Meroney’s account of Reagan’s appearance on the GE Theater with James Dean in 1954.
Meroney’s friend Wayne Federman unearthed the GE Theater broadcast, condensing it from its original 23 minutes (without commercials) into the six-minute version below. Reagan plays a physician, forced to defend his home and family from Dean, a teenage lawbreaker seeking medical treatment for an injured friend.
At the time of his appearance with Reagan in 1954, Dean had yet to begin filming of Rebel Without a Cause. “Less than a year after this episode aired,” Meroney writes, “Reagan was a major primetime presence whom millions tuned in to see each week. Dean was a tragic, what-might-have-been figure, dead at age 24 from an automobile crash.”
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