August 10, 1981 12:00 PM

President Ronald Reagan completes his second hundred days in office this week, which seems as good a time as any to return to the back lots of Warner Bros., where, for him, it all began. Reagan made 53 movies during his Hollywood career, and five women who co-starred with him in some pictures that ranged from the memorable to the miserable here reminisce about the man they knew. Even with the cameras rolling, they claim that they all saw in Reagan the actor a quality that later surfaced with more promise in Reagan the politician.

Dorothy Malone: She likes the ‘old’ Reagan better

Dorothy Malone likes the Ronald Reagan she met on the set of the 1953 film Law and Order (inset) a lot better than the one who is now in the White House. “He was an ardent Democrat back then,” she remembers. “He was all for an idea that seemed fabulous to me.” The plan was to grant movie stars a depletion allowance, modeled after the tax breaks given to oil drillers. “Coming from oil country, it seemed fair to me,” she says. But back in her hometown of Dallas, Malone now finds Reagan’s ideas less than helpful. “I’m not in any tax bracket that any tax cut would help,” she insists. “He [Reagan] has let the gasoline price go up so that I can hardly afford to drive. My parents are in a nursing home, and we cannot afford one little dollar cut in Medicare.”

Malone, who was discovered by a talent scout in a student production at Southern Methodist University, reached the peak of her career in 1956, with a best-supporting-actress Oscar for Written on the Wind. But her 1958 star turn in Too Much, Too Soon was a critical fiasco—and two years later she was doing public relations for an insurance company. Her four-year stint on TV’s Peyton Place in the mid-’60s earned her up to $300,000 annually, but she lost almost everything in two messy divorces and a near-fatal pulmonary embolism. “People think if you win an Oscar you’re set for life,” she has said. “Forget it. An Oscar can be a jinx.”

Still, she keeps busy, recently appearing in a Florida production of Butterflies Are Free. And at 56, she remains hopeful of a comeback, either on Broadway or in commercials. She lives in her parents’ home (left) with her “stunning” daughters, Mimi, 21, and Diane, 19, and she hopes to dissuade them from show business careers. “It’s not an easy life, and your chances of meeting a decent husband are lessened by a million,” she says. “I don’t want them to go through what I’ve gone through.”

Virginia Mayo: He stood up for a vamp

Virginia Mayo, 60, hasn’t had a word with Ronald Reagan since 1951, but even then she knew. Her last movie with him was the Warner Bros, film She’s Working Her Way Through College (above), in which “she” was a burlesque queen who wanted an education and he was the professor who came to defend her sullied honor, declaiming on the right of every man, woman and child to an education. The speech was his own, rewritten from a script he considered second-rate, and that caused a mild scandal in the studio. The director of the film, H. Bruce Humberstone, recounts: “Jack Warner came storming onto the set and said to me, ‘What’s this I hear about you letting a damned actor write his own speeches?’ But then he listened to Ronnie’s version and said, ‘You win.’ ” As Mayo remembers, “Ronnie believed in what he was saying.”

Notwithstanding Reagan’s current position on reducing aid to education, Mayo says, “He is doing marvelously. He really wants to do the right thing.” Mayo recalls that during the filming of their 1949 film The Girl From Jones Beach, Reagan was recently divorced and “had a lot of girlfriends visiting the set. He was very handsome, as he still is.” She’s sorry they’ve lost touch but despairs of seeing him again. “Unless he decides to have all his leading ladies come to Washington,” she says, “I guess I won’t.” After taking time off to raise her daughter, Mary Catherine, now 27, Mayo has returned to acting in summer stock. She recently appeared in the comedy Murder at the Howard Johnson’s in theaters not far from her Thousand Oaks, Calif, home. Yet her career suggests that Reagan’s switch from acting to politics was perhaps a sensible one. “As you get older,” she says, “you don’t get offered much.”

Patricia Neal: ‘He knew his business’

Two years after her 1946 triumph on Broadway in Another Part of the Forest, Patricia Neal made her film debut opposite Ronald Reagan. She has happily forgotten the picture, John Loves Mary, but not her first meeting with Reagan, which took place at a New Year’s Eve party in Los Angeles. “His wife, Jane Wyman, had just announced their separation,” she recalls, “and it was sad, because he did not want a divorce. I remember he went outside. An older woman went with him. He cried.”

Although their first effort flopped, Neal and Reagan joined up again for The Hasty Heart (right) in 1949 in London, a city still recovering from the effects of World War II. They lived in adjacent suites at the Savoy Hotel and often ate together. “The food was so ghastly,” recalls Neal, 55. “Finally Ronnie sent to ’21’ for 12 steaks. They sent them back by air from New York, and he shared them with me.”

Although Neal rates Reagan as “a very good film actor, he knew his business,” she doesn’t consider his career switch a loss to her art. She didn’t vote in the last election (“I really meant to”), and confesses to being “more of a Democrat than a Republican.” But, she emphasizes, “I do like Ronnie, I really do.” She gives much of the credit for his political success to his wife. “Nancy was not a very good actress,” she says, “but she is a beautiful wife to Ronald Reagan.”

Despite a brilliant career, which included a 1963 Oscar for Hud, Neal is probably best known for overcoming the paralysis and memory loss she sustained in a massive stroke in 1965. The illness followed two other tragedies in her life: In 1960 a Manhattan taxicab hit the carriage of her 4-month-old son Theo, killing him, and two years later her 7-year-old eldest daughter, Olivia, also died—of measles. Neal and her husband of 28 years, British author Roald Dahl, divide their time between a house in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, England and a recently purchased home on Martha’s Vineyard. Their four surviving children, ages 16 to 24, are all prospering, but Neal takes her good fortune with a healthy measure of caution. “So many ghastly things have happened, one just prays it’s over,” she says. “But one never knows.”

Laraine Day: ‘He was so dedicated, so involved’

On location in Gallup, N.Mex. late in 1940, Laraine Day and Ronald Reagan spent 30 days waiting for snow to fall. It never did. As a result, the movie The Bad Man wound up 20 minutes short. “Strange picture,” recalls Day (left, with Reagan and Chill Wills). “But while we were waiting, we had a lot of time to play games and for Ronnie to talk. And Ronnie talks an awful lot. He once told me some advice Bill Holden gave him that he said had changed his life: ‘Don’t be jealous of other people, don’t resent other people getting good parts.’ ” She worked with him next on the Nixon campaign of 1960. “I think Ronnie wanted to be President many years ago,” she says.

When he made it, she sent a congratulatory telegram. “Two days later the phone rang and it was the President-elect,” she says. “The first thing he said to me was a line from the opening of our scene in The Bad Man—’I have a little going-away present for you.’ I couldn’t believe he remembered it.”

Although Reagan and his first wife, Jane Wyman, used to come to her house to play charades, Day has seen little of Reagan in recent years. Retired, she lives in Cheviot Hills, Calif, with her husband of 20 years, writer-producer Michel Grilikhes, and three of her four children, and keeps an approving eye on her former co-star’s second career. “He was always more interested in politics than acting,” she says. “He was so involved, so dedicated, there was no other place for him to go.”

Viveca Lindfors: Her agent warned against him

Viveca Lindfors has only two odd memories about Ronald Reagan. One is a remark about sex: He said it was best “in the afternoon, after coming out of the shower.” The second is that she was warned about starring with him in her U.S. film debut, Night Unto Night (right). “My agent said, ‘I’m not sure he’s good enough,’ ” she recalls. “Ronnie was not a big star. He didn’t carry enough weight. To think that the guy became President is really kind of funny.” Lindfors, a liberal Democrat, voted for Jimmy Carter.

When she met Reagan, she had just arrived in Hollywood from a blazing Swedish career. She was also falling in love with Night’s director, Don Siegel, who later became her third husband. Reagan, then married to Jane Wyman, was “already politically powerful,” Lindfors recalls. “At the time of the movie there was a strike going on, and it wasn’t completely safe for him to cross the picket line. Police followed him—it would have been expensive if something had happened to him.”

It turned out that Lindfors’ agent was right. She got good reviews, but critics found Reagan’s role as the epileptic biochemist to be too much for him (“lacks depth”). “I have a feeling that acting was kind of a sideline for Reagan,” she says charitably. Lindfors lost her Warner’s contract after she pooh-poohed her movie career in a LIFE cover story, and thereafter her film roles went from bad to worse. But stage and television work has come to her steadily almost ever since. At 60, she has weathered four marriages, and now lives alone in a Manhattan brown-stone (bottom). Her three children are grown and gone, but her life is full. Last year she worked with her actor son, Kristoffer Tabori, 26, in a two-person show called My Mother, My Son, which she hopes to take on tour. She recently finished her autobiography, Viveka…Viveca, to be published by Everest House in October. She teaches an acting workshop at Sarah Lawrence College, and is now writing a one-woman show in which she will portray a 110-year-old Swedish immigrant. In a forthcoming NBC-TV movie, For Ladies Only, she even closed the circle on her professional life with Ronald Reagan. One of her co-stars is his daughter, Patti Davis.

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