:: Article

Reagan, Z.

By Joshua Cohen.

It began as a neat little puff of what has been lazily and excessively called postmodernism. Reagan, fortieth president of the United States, had been an actor, too, and had served his debut presidential position as head of the Screen Actors’ Guild throughout the darkest days of the Hollywood Blacklist. Best known for his work as rookie corporate attorney and miscellaneous “fixer” Adam Luster in an otherwise forgettable hour-long, season-lived television drama, Z. was involved with the role that should have made his career. Thanks to an artificially complicated script written ten times over and revised by twelve hands, filming Gipper: The Ronald Reagan Story meant not only filming scenes from Reagan’s life but also filming scenes from Reagan’s own films, including this complicatedly comic moment from 1951’s Bedtime For Bonzo. This scene that unmade Z.’s career, then, can be thought of as a movie within a movie — itself a complex telling. The titular Bonzo was, it must be remembered, a monkey, specifically a chimpanzee; due to its intelligence and relative humanity the species most favored by Hollywood and the American public for use in motion pictures. Z. — whose new agent had recommended him for the job not only based on his acting ability but also because Z. had once worked for a college break summer in Las Vegas as a Reagan impersonator (the two looked similar in their youth, Z. had the voice perfected) — here played a professor eager to solve a pressing social question characteristic of America’s postwar curiosity: namely, the famous Nature v. Nurture? Which is ultimately decisive of character, of essential being: one’s genetics, or the manner and moral in which one is raised? This acute and enlightened query, however, was reduced to martini farce. Bonzo’s lead character, The Professor (played by Reagan, played by Z.), desires the Dean’s comely daughter, and asks for her hand in marriage. Problem is, the Professor is the son of a convict, a robber of banks. In order to prove that what is essential in man comes to him democratically, through example, and is not instead (fascistically, or feudally) innate or inborn, the Professor announces his intention to raise the chimp Bonzo to responsible maturity. Due to his probable success with the chimp, the Dean would be reassured, and so would grant his daughter in marriage to this pioneering, young and attractive man of science who, later and outside the film, would become president of the United States of America and the defender of the free world from the communist scourge.

Z. had never seen Bedtime For Bonzo, but would never have to see it. All representative scenes from Reagan’s filmography to be used in the Reagan biopic were filmed, or refilmed, on a Burbank soundstage without sound, as they’d been scripted to show in the finally edited feature as elements of a silent montage — to be accompanied by the music of barbershop quartets. Something white (recordings by the Doctors of Harmony and The Clef Chiefs were even then being auditioned by the Music Supervisor).

The last shot of October 9th, Z.’s last day as an actor, was a meticulous recreation or reimagination of Bonzo’s most memorable still: that of Reagan, or Z. as Reagan, nursing the chimp, today named George, from a baby bottle (incidentally, the chimp who played Bonzo in the original Bonzo co-starred with Tarzan throughout the 1930s and 40s). Why the film’s director or editor couldn’t merely splice in archival footage to be digitally manipulated was because behind Reagan, or Z. as Reagan in this remake and there interacting with him and the chimp, was to be a chorusline composed of women from various times in Reagan’s life, each in their period costume: Jane Wyman, Reagan’s first wife, dressed as she was in Magnificent Obsession (alongside the heartbreaking Rock Hudson) in beachwear with ridiculous sunglasses; Nancy Davis, Reagan’s second wife and the future first lady, in those tragic skirts she always wore with the hair above cut short but piled high; Nelle Wilson, Reagan’s mother, in Depression chic, alongside a host of minor actresses with whom he’d had casual flings that would always occasion bouts of extreme depression, guilt, and even, once, pubic lice. The choreography of this scene was especially difficult. The tragedy occurred only upon the seventeenth take. The day was late and everyone frustrated, not least the chimp playing Bonzo. He had been having bottles of warmed half-and-half shoved in his face for half the afternoon, and soon refused to keep still. After a bathroom break did nothing to calm him, George was retired and a replacement, George II, was brought in and cradled by Reagan as Z. As an actor if not as a monkey, George II was untried and, like the actor cradling him, but not the actor that the actor was playing, was making his movie debut. Upon the forced application of bottle to lips, the chimp went absolutely motherfucking crazy, jumped up and scraped Z., almost ripped off his face. By the time George II was wrestled from him, Z.’s nose was broken and his bottom lip was half torn; he’d been blinded in both of his eyes. Z. never worked again. Insurance took care of his surgeries, which failed. The Animal Wrangler emerged from this incident having incurred a desultory reprimand from a studio executive, along with a minor fine. The film was abandoned. Lars, the German actor who played the professor’s friend, another professor, portrayed in Bonzo by the great character actor Walter Slezak (1902 – 1983), went back to law school. Slezak, a sentimental favorite of the current writer, was a Viennese émigré who often played Nazis in American films; he committed suicide late in life, interrupting a prolonged illness.

Today Z. lives at home in Illinois, though his settlement was said to be in the high seven figures. He refused an interview with the author of this account, his mother Adele sending only this statement by fax: “My son can no longer act.” Reagan has still not been accurately represented on film.


Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in New Jersey. He is the author of four books, most recently A Heaven of Others, called “one of the most provocative American novels in recent memory,” by The Buffalo News. His essays have appeared in The Forward, Nextbook, Harper’s, and elsewhere. Cohen lives in Brooklyn, NY.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 25th, 2008.