To a generation of Americans, she was the face of the “Just Say No” campaign and ‘astrologer-in-chief’ but ultimately, Nancy Reagan will be remembered as a strong and impressive woman who fiercely cared for and defended her husband and his legacy. But as Nancy Davis, she was also a Hollywood actress in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1952, after marrying Ronald Reagan, Nancy began to play the role of a lifetime as wife, mother and First Lady of both California and the United States.
Born Anne Frances Robbins on July 6, 1921, it was her mother who called her ‘Nancy’, Mrs. Reagan’s father left the family when she was young. Her mother, Edith Robbins, toured the country as an actress. Robbins later married Dr. Loyal Davis, and the family settled in Chicago.
Following her graduation from college and with the help of her mother’s colleagues in theatre, including Zasu Pitts, Walter Huston, and Spencer Tracy, she pursued a career as a professional actress. After moving to New York, she landed the role of Si-Tchun, a lady-in-waiting in the 1946 Broadway musical about the Orient, Lute Song, starring Mary Martin and a pre-stardom Yul Brynner. The show’s producer told her, “You look like you could be Chinese.”
After passing a screen test, she moved to California and signed a seven-year contract with MGM in 1949. Her combination of attractive appearance and somewhat distant and understated manner made her hard at first for MGM to cast and publicize.
Davis appeared in only eleven feature films, usually typecast as a “loyal housewife,” “responsible young mother,” or “the steady woman.” Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Leslie Caron and Janet Leigh, were among the actresses with whom she competed for roles with at MGM.
In her next-to-last movie, HELLCATS OF THE NAVY (1957), she made her only big screen appearance with her husband. After her final film in 1958, Davis appeared for a brief time as a guest star in television dramas such as the Zane Grey Theatre, as well as Wagon Train, and The Tall Man, until she officially retired from acting in 1962.
During her career, Davis served on the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild for nearly ten years. Decades later, Albert Brooks attempted to coax her out of acting retirement by offering her the title role opposite himself in his 1996 film MOTHER. She declined in order to care for her husband, and Debbie Reynolds played the part.