Is it possible to feel a personal warmth and affection, even love, towards someone one has never met? It must be, because that’s how I feel about the late President Ronald Reagan.
The reason I felt so fond of the old Cold War warrior, and the reason I cherish his memory now that he is even colder, is this. Back around 1983, towards the end of Ronnie’s first term in the Oval Office, the man did me one enormous favour. Perhaps unwittingly, but nonetheless effectively, he gave my career such a boost that I lived off it for years. Still do, in some ways. What he did was this. He, the leader of the Free World, appeared on an internationally distributed light entertainment television show, and told a worldwide audience a joke that I had written for him.
An explanation is in order. The show was one of those concocted by television executives when they can’t think of anything worthwhile to do with their time and their studios. It was little more than a collection of clips harvested from the James Bond movies made to that date, and assembled under the title James Bond — The First 21 Years. The clips were segregated by subject. Thus, a bunch of clips showing Bond humping beautiful girls was followed by a bunch of clips showing Bond thumping villains, which was in turn followed by a bunch of clips showing Bond not humping Miss Moneypenny, and so on.
The show would have been even more dire than it sounds had it not been placed under the control of a dynamic and visionary producer. Yes, years ago such people did exist. This producer — whose name I will withhold because he went on to do many other much better things — conceived the idea of inserting between the bunches of clips a few mini-interviews with famous people, who would talk about James Bond as if he were a real person. The comments made by these celebrities would of course be ad lib and off-the-cuff, and the producer now produced further evidence of his competence by hiring me to write off-the-cuff ad libs for them.
Most of the celebrities selected for this role were so celebrated that I’ve forgotten who they were. But our super-duper producer soon achieved something of a coup. He persuaded the legendary, and at the time very much alive, Bob Hope to participate. I therefore wrote a jokey line for Bob to say, and he read it to camera with all the aplomb of a man who made millions by reading other people’s jokes. It went like this:
Hope (to camera): James Bond is one of the two greatest lovers in the world. Modesty forbids that I tell you who the other one is.
Ho-ho. This success inspired the production team to ever greater efforts, and soon one bright spark came up with the idea of approaching the world’s most famous man, i.e., President Reagan. How we tittered at the preposterous idea of asking the world’s MFM to appear on our little show. But, to assuage the ardour of the bright spark, an appropriate fawning request was forwarded to the White House, and in due course an appropriately dusty reply in the negative was received.
But the production of this televisual farrago was split between London Weekend Television and, for obvious reasons, the producers of the James Bond films in the person of one Cubby Broccoli. And it now came to pass that Broccoli — a vegetable in name only — allowed it to be known that he was intending to contribute one zillion dollars or thereabouts to the Campaign to Re-Elect the President.
It was then suggested that we repeat our request to the White House. We did. And this time the reply was in the affirmative. I like to think that Ronnie drawled, ‘Why sure, fellers. Shucks, why not?’ I can clearly remember, back across the decades, the moment when, at a routine production meeting, this astounding decision was relayed to us. When the gasps of astonishment faded, someone asked, ‘Yes, but what’s Reagan going to say about James Bond?’
All eyes turned to me. ‘Ha!’ I ejaculated, with all the confidence of youth (I was still just under 40). ‘No problem.’ And indeed, after a night or two of mental agony, I duly came up with a joke about James Bond for Ronald Reagan.
The joke was forwarded to the White House, where it disappeared into one end of the presidential speech-writing department, but reappeared out of the other end virtually unchanged. In a state of excitement, LWT flew a camera crew to Washington and they returned two days later with film of Reagan doing the joke safely in the bag.
I watched it, and it was at this point that I fell in love with Ronnie, because he did it so well. He did it like he had just thought of it, and he thought that his thought was the best thought he had ever thought in his life. And as any scriptwriter will tell you, that’s the way it should be done.
The joke was the best thing in our show. It also appeared in the Washington Post, which was mildly critical of it, in Time magazine, which was wryly amused by it, and in Pravda, which didn’t get it. Who cared? Reagan had done it for me. By using my joke, he had helped establish me as a comedy writer — an achievement seen, in some eyes, as the equivalent of Saving the American Economy, and only slightly less significant than Winning the Cold War. Indeed, only days after the show appeared I was approached to write jokes for the Krankies. Brother, I was on my way.
The actual joke? Well, picture the scene. We’re in the White House rose garden. Ronnie, looking his craggy if slightly orange best, twinkles at the camera and then says, with a hint of that delightful, homely chuckle in his voice, the following line:
‘Some people say that James Bond is just an actor in the movies. But I say, everyone’s got to start somewhere.’
Ron, wherever you are today …thanks.