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Top 20 Celebrity Activists of All Time

An inside look at stars ranging from Harry Belafonte to Ronald Reagan

President Ronald Reagan accepts a shirt commemorating his most famous film role

President Ronald Reagan holds "The Gipper" jersey at a campaign rally in New York in 1984. — The White House/Corbis

Ronald Reagan

Long before he was a politician, Reagan was a political force. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, and as a founding California member of Americans for Democratic Action, Reagan after World War II was a pillar of Hollywood's anti-communist left — the embattled New Deal liberals who sought a political home between the communist-influenced Popular Front organizations and the archconservative Red hunters who persecuted them.

But that was just a way station for Reagan on a journey that carried him rightward for the remainder of his life. After endorsing Democrat Harry Truman in 1948, Reagan jumped the divide to support Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and never really looked back.

From the moment Reagan made another leap from celebrity activist to California gubernatorial candidate in the 1966 race, his opponents tried to use his Hollywood background to discredit him. In a 1966 radio ad, for example, Gene Kelly declared, "I know I could play the role of a governor but that I could never really sit in his chair."

In fact, millions of voters, first in California, then nationwide, had no trouble envisioning Reagan in the big chair, partly because of the skills before the camera that he honed in Hollywood, but more important because he projected a sense of conviction and optimism that reflected some of the nation's deepest beliefs and most-cherished myths.

Reagan's rise to the presidency offered the kind of irony that somehow seems more appropriate to a foreign film: Hollywood has leaned left since FDR, but its most important political export proved to be a heartland Republican who redefined and reinvigorated modern conservatism.

Next: Robert Redford >>

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