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The Vanishing

Photo by C.R. Stecyk

I didn’t come to Los Angeles for the waters, as Rick Blaine says of his move to Casablanca. I came for the movies. While I consulted at Hanna-Barbera on a

Jetsons

marketing campaign and worked as a research analyst tracking awareness and interest levels in contemporary actors, I had always been drawn to old Hollywood. I felt a spiritual kinship with the Warner Brothers stars from the 1930s and ’40s and it was my love for the gangster pictures and swashbucklers, for Bogey, Cagney, Garfield and Flynn, that had lured me to the Southland from New Haven, Connecticut.

One December morning, in 1995, I found myself jogging on the bike path from Venice Beach into Santa Monica in preparation for the L.A. Marathon. To a New Englander like me, it was a mild day though winter had begun. I let my mind drift and did not think much about the upcoming fork in the path; I veered right toward the beachfront hotels — and experienced a quintessential L.A. moment, a star sighting, except this one was different because the star in question had never been an A-lister in the film business. He had been known as a B-movie actor.

It was just south of Shutters, the swank seaside hideout of Hollywood moguls, where I saw the face of this B actor, a face familiar yet out of place on this sunny day by the beach, an almost surreal visitation. It was the face and body of Ronald Reagan, who according to legend had once been considered for the Rick Blaine role that Bogart would immortalize in Casablanca.

Reagan was walking with two much younger people, a woman and a man, both in their 30s and dressed crisply in sports jackets. He was all bundled up in a heavy, brownish sweater and was wearing an open winter coat over it, while I scampered along in shorts and a T-shirt. His head appeared almost disembodied in the midst of all the clothing, but the full covering could not conceal his once-robust physique. I could still see the former swimmer and lifeguard, the college jock who’d gone on to play George Gipp, Reagan’s most famous role, in Knute Rockne All-American.

Just now, though, he hobbled a bit, walking with the aid of his two young consorts, and I remembered the rumors that Reagan was suffering from Alzheimer’s. He had been out of office for seven years, but it seemed much longer, so absent was he from public life. Seeing him after all this time, I almost felt as though I was looking at a long-lost relative, like my grandfather, also a muscular man who had worn bulky sweaters and who was Reagan’s age.

I did a double-take and waved, and he too delayed for a moment before waving back at me with a smile. It was as if he and I knew each other. And in some ways we did. I had seen his movies, Desperate Journey and Santa Fe Trail, when I was just a boy in the early ’70s, when my grandfather was still alive. Though Reagan was not in my pantheon of greats, I grew to love the whole Warner repertory of actors from Alan Hale and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams to Olivia de Havilland and Ann Sheridan. And, since Desperate Journey, a war picture, was one of my favorite films, I even loved Ronald Reagan. He and Flynn and Hale and the others I saw every weekend on New York’s Channel 5 were my friends, my weekly companions.

Still, I hadn’t really liked Reagan at the time because I was a Flynn fan, and Reagan tried to steal scenes from the dashing Aussie in Desperate Journey. They both got star billing in the film playing RAF officers; but, where Flynn usually got all the laughs in his films, there is one scene in Desperate Journey where Reagan, not Flynn, gets to outwit the Nazis. His RAF crew members, including Flynn, enter a commandant’s office only to find the Gipper in the seat of power.

As I headed for the Santa Monica Pier, I told myself that if I saw Reagan on the way back to Venice I would stop and say something to him, but nothing about politics. I had known him first as an actor and only later learned from my father that the Warner player was governor of California.

I dipped under the pier and ran on the path back to Venice. Then I spotted a black limousine with tinted windows inching its way through a parking lot. I looked over on the path, and there, ambling with a bit of a limp and escorted by the two crisply dressed Secret Service agents, was Reagan.

I stopped right in front of him, stuck out my hand, and said, “President Reagan.” The woman and man started speaking into headsets as they studied me. “I just want to tell you,” I continued, “that I’m an old Warner Brothers fan, and that Desperate Journey with you and Errol Flynn is one of my favorite movies.”

Other runners and cyclists raced by, oblivious to Reagan. No one seemed to notice him. For that moment, it was only me and the former Warner star.

The Secret Service smiled. The two bodyguards realized I was no threat to the former president, who also smiled at me as we shook hands. He said something to the effect of, “Oh, really.” Though I couldn’t be sure of what he said, he spoke with a cheery smile; if nothing else, he knew that I was being friendly with him. I then said, “I just wanted to let you know that.” He continued smiling with that aw-shucks grin and I left for Venice.

Later, it occurred to me that Reagan had wanted to connect with people again. After all his years of isolation, away from the public and beginning to lose his mind in the early stages of a crippling disease, he wanted to go for a stroll and be remembered.

I craned my neck for a last look, but I could not spot him. The old man was lost in the crowd.

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