Superstar Warren Beatty wrote, directed and played the title role in the 1998 film “Bulworth” as a disillusioned senator who decides to come clean with his constituents about the corruption of present-day politics. A year later, urged on by supportive friends, Beatty took on a real-life role in fall 1999 as a disillusioned citizen who publicly ponders the idea of running for president himself.
The four-month flirtation ended on Jan. 3, 2000, when Vanity Fair magazine hit the newsstands with Beatty's “not now, maybe later” decision. “I'm not running now,” Beatty told the magazine. “I think the question is: Can I be effective at another time? Whether that is in a year, or two years, who knows?”
A half-century earlier, Beatty's possible candidacy might have been dismissed as a Mittyesque daydream. But that was before Ronald Reagan showed that in the United States, even a B-list film star could grow up someday to be president — for two terms, even.
By the end of the 20th century, one-time actors had served in elective office at every level of government, including at least four in Congress: Reps. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.), Fred Grandy (R-Iowa) and Ben Jones (D-Ga.) and Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.).
All four of the actors-turned-lawmakers had creditable records in Congress that, for some of them, belied their TV roles. Grandy, the bumbling bursar on the TV show “The Love Boat,” was described in 1992 as “one of the most able of the younger generation of House Republicans.” Jones, on the other hand, was said to be “popular with colleagues” because of a “real-life folksy manner” that matched that of his character on “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
Today, Al Franken is a serious voice for liberal Democratic politics as junior senator from Minnesota decades after he started in show business as a comedy writer and performer on the NBC program “Saturday Night Live.”
Reagan and fellow actor George Murphy were by no means taken seriously at first when they ventured into electoral politics in California in the 1960s. But Steven J. Ross, author of the book Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics, says reporters mistook the one-time film stars to be political neophytes. “These guys had been in the political trenches,” Ross says.
Ronald Reagan transitioned from a B-list film star into leading political roles, first as governor of California and eventually as president of the United States. (Getty Images/The White House/Michael Evans)
Ross says the two conservatives were “absolutely fundamental to unseating the liberal Republican stronghold in the state.” Murphy bested an establishment candidate to win the GOP primary for a U.S. Senate seat in 1964 and then defeated former White House press secretary Pierre Salinger in the general election. Reagan similarly beat a more liberal Republican in 1966 to gain the party's gubernatorial nomination and went on to win over two-term incumbent Edmund G. (Pat) Brown.
Like Reagan before him, Beatty was far from a political amateur when he toyed with a presidential candidacy in 1999. Beatty had been a close adviser in 1972 to Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, who later praised his political instincts. Later, Beatty worked for Gary Hart in his two unsuccessful campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination, in 1984 and 1988. Unlike Reagan, however, Beatty backed away from seeking office himself. He was jealous of his privacy, according to Ross, and ill-suited for governing as well.
Today, many successful politicians are also finding it necessary to prove themselves in the world of entertainment. Richard Nixon's appearance as presidential candidate in 1968 on the NBC comedy “Laugh-In” is famous, in part, because it was so unusual at the time. But candidate Bill Clinton's saxophone gig on the “Arsenio Hall Show” set a new standard for politicians, who now routinely appear on entertainment as well as TV news programs. In August 2003, actor-turned-politico Arnold Schwarzenegger went so far as to announce his candidacy for governor of California on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno.
Ross says actors still risk being belittled when they decide to delve into politics. David Blake, a professor of English at the College of New Jersey, agrees, but finds the public's doubts ironic given the blurring line between entertainment and politics. “It's an odd dynamic,” says Blake, who is writing a book on celebrity in the 1950s. “On the one hand, we resent entertainers who become political, but we are also becoming more and more accustomed to politicians who become entertainers.”