Mail Bag! Reagan, Flynn and Wayne?

15 May

Our Portugal based friend Audie spotted this and send it along …

Here’s the nearest that John Wayne and Ronald Reagan came to acting in the same feature film. (Sadly, not all that close):

Olivia, Flynn and a future President (as George Custer).

In April, 1940, Warner Bros. set up the semi-Western Santa Fe Trail as a vehicle for Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. The plot followed the exploits of army officers J.E.B. Stuart and George Armstrong Custer after their graduation from West Point.

As per usual, the brothers Warner were free and easy with facts, given that Stuart graduated from the academy in 1854 and Custer matriculated in 1861, and the two men didn’t know one another. The Hollywood rationale? “Come on, already! This is a movie! At least both of them graduated from the Point!”

Duke Wayne, now in the A-list category thanks to Stagecoach and Dark Command, was approached by Warners to play the George Custer role. Wayne, however, turned up his nose at the part, having no desire to play second banana to Flynn (then Warner Bros.’s biggest star), even though the flick was a big-budget epic.

Undaunted, Warners cast contract player Dennis Morgan as Custer, but Denny fell out due to a scheduling conflict. At which point, up-and-comer Ronald Reagan, fresh from his triumph as George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All American, was hurriedly awarded the role.

Mr. Reagan, aware he was a last-minute replacement, later recalled how a frazzled studio tailor rushed into his dressing room to refit a Santa Fe Trail cavalry costume:

It occurred to me then that it would be just as easy someday to throw my clothes in a corner and hang some other actor’s in their place. …

If John Wayne had been less finicky about the parts he accepted, the “other actor” in Santa Fe Trail would have been the Big Cowboy and not Ronald Reagan portraying George A. Custer.

This is as close as the two ever got to acting in the same film: they were both offered the same part.

Postscript: “SFT” was a highly profitable film that boosted Reagan’s career. It fell into the Public Domain when United Artists Television neglected to renew the copyright.




— David DeWitt


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