As the 40th president of the United States, actor and politician Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) led America’s charge through the neon-lit 1980s, navigating tense relations with the Soviet Union and tackling a highly controversial war on drugs. Though not everyone agreed with his politics, many consider Reagan—who was born on this day in 1911—to be among the most charismatic leaders in the country’s history. If you’re thin on “Gipper” trivia, take a look at some facts about his life, his time in office, and how a chimpanzee nearly did him in.
1. His dad called him "Dutch."
Reagan had several nicknames throughout his life, but his first was given to him by his father "Jack" Reagan shortly after he was born on February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois. Marveling at his son’s heft, Jack referred to the baby as a "fat little Dutchman,” a nickname strengthened by the “Dutch boy” haircuts he received as a child. According to Reagan’s autobiography, when he was older he began asking people to call him Dutch because he didn’t feel “'Ronald' was rugged enough for a young red-blooded American boy.”
2. His acting resume was long.
As a sports broadcaster, Reagan primarily covered Chicago Cubs games. Because the team held their spring training in southern California, Reagan was able to convince the broadcaster to let him use the training as a vacation away from Iowa’s winters. In 1937, on one of these trips, Reagan met up with Joy Hodges, a singer he knew from back home who went to Hollywood. She put him in touch with a talent agent who called up a casting director.
He got a screen test and scored a contract with Warner Bros. (At the time, studios were still in the business of signing exclusivity deals with actors, doling them out to whatever parts needed filling in their productions.) Reagan acted in over 50 movies over the next three decades, including Knute Rockne, All American, where he played real-life college football player George “Gipper” Gipp. The part gave him his “Gipper” nickname.
3. He was upset about never winning an Oscar.
Most of Reagan’s films were not exactly award contenders, but that didn’t stop the president from feeling like he was owed a little consideration from the Academy. In his 2018 memoir, Movie Nights with the Reagans, Reagan aide Mark Weinberg wrote that during his time in the White House, the Commander-in-Chief expressed annoyance that no one from his former profession acknowledged his evolution from performer to world leader with an honorary award. “You would think that after what I’ve done—being the only one from that profession to do so—they would commemorate it in some way,” he reportedly told Weinberg in the 1980s. “But I guess their political agenda has taken over good manners.”
Reagan did have one flirtation with the Oscars. On March 30, 1981, he was shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. The award ceremony, scheduled to take place that day, was postponed by 24 hours out of respect for the president. (Reagan made a full recovery.)
4. He was nearly killed by a chimp.
The nadir of Reagan’s acting career may have been 1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo, in which the future leader of the free world tried to corral a mischievous chimpanzee. While shooting a scene with Peggy, the chimp portraying Bonzo, the animal became intrigued by Reagan's tie and began pulling on it like a rope. Refusing to let go, she compressed the knot into something no bigger than Reagan’s fingernail. After finally being released by his animal assailant, Reagan was tended to by crew members who had to cut the tie off his neck.
5. He was an FBI informant.
In the 1940s, Reagan—then still an actor, but becoming increasingly involved in politics—became a real-life FBI informant. Both Reagan and first wife Jane Wyman tipped off the Bureau to suspected Communist activity in Hollywood. (His code name was T-10.) Reagan apparently had some misgivings about his actions, fearing Hollywood was using too heavy a hand in persecuting suspected red sympathizers. He once asked an agent, "Do they expect us to constitute ourselves as a little FBI of our own and determine just who is a Commie and who isn't?”
6. He loved writing letters.
Reagan carved out time in his day to both read and answer letters, and he wasn’t discriminating about where they came from. A seventh-grader once wrote to the president asking for federal assistance because his mother declared his bedroom a disaster area. Tickled by the kid’s sense of humor, Reagan responded and suggested he clean the room. In 1984, Reagan wrote a letter of support to entertainer Michael Jackson, who had been badly burned during the shooting of a Pepsi commercial: “You've gained quite a number of fans along the road since ‘I Want You Back’ and Nancy and I are among them.”
7. He received free jelly beans for years.
Reagan first began snacking on jelly beans in 1966 after he gave up pipe smoking. Goelitz Candy, which made his preferred jelly bean, sent him shipments while Reagan was holding office as governor of California from 1967 to 1975. After debuting the Jelly Belly line in the '60s, the company continued to ship their goods to the White House during all eight years of Reagan’s presidency. They even received permission to issue jelly bean jars with the official presidential seal to be given out at functions.
8. He helped to destigmatize hearing aids.
In 1983, Reagan admitted he relied on use of a hearing aid in order to address age-related hearing loss. Previously, hearing aids had been stigmatized in the U.S. as representing a feeble constitution. After Reagan’s announcement, sales of hearing aid equipment soared. Starkey Laboratories, which made the president’s device, quadrupled its sales in the months following the publicity.
9. There have been at least 10 statues erected in his honor.
Reagan’s hometown of Dixon, Illinois has no shortage of tributes to their most famous resident. A statue of Reagan stands near his boyhood home, while a second—this one depicting Reagan on horseback—is near Rock River. Reagan has also had statues erected in his honor at the California Capitol (with an exact replica at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley), at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, and in Newport Beach. There are two in Budapest, one in London, and one in Warsaw. The largest to date—a 10-foot-tall monument of Reagan saluting—stands in Covington, Louisiana. Yet another is planned near Lowell Park in Dixon, where Reagan reportedly saved 77 lives while serving as a lifeguard there for seven summers. A local joke has it that some of them were women who faked distress in order to get his attention.
10. Will Ferrell upset the Reagan family.
Following Reagan’s death in 2004 from pneumonia, the Reagan estate was quick to cut down any suggestion that his longtime struggle with Alzheimer’s disease affected his role while in office. In 2016, his children, Michael Reagan and Patti Davis, chastised actor Will Ferrell for considering a comedy titled Reagan in which he would play a neurologically-afflicted president whose behavior leads to “alternative” takes on world history. The Alzheimer’s Association said in a statement it was “appalled” by the idea. Ferrell quickly distanced himself from the film, which has yet to be made.