Today, it's an astonishing, even eerie, scene: the icon of modern American conservatism, whose rise to political prominence was galvanized by the cultural rebellion of the 1960s, fighting off an attack-at-gunpoint by the quintessential modern American rebel. But when "The Dark, Dark Hours" episode of General Electric Theater aired live from Hollywood on December 12, 1954, Ronald Reagan and James Dean were just two actors yet to find the roles that would define them.
No one has seen this episode in the decades since; the kinescope has been locked away, until now. My friend Wayne Federman, a writer for NBC's Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, unearthed the broadcast, condensing it from its original 23 minutes (without commercials) into the six-minute version you see below. (Federman is planning a retrospective of Reagan's television career for next year's Reagan centennial.)
Here, Reagan is a physician, forced to defend his home and family from Dean, a teenage lawbreaker seeking medical treatment for an injured friend.
A decade before Reagan's political career took off, with a nationally televised speech supporting Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign, and months before Dean started filming Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, both of these Midwesterners seem to be rehearsing future roles--Reagan as the happy warrior who could, in a moment, turn fierce ("I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!") and Dean as teenage angst writ large ("You're tearing me apart!").
At the time of the broadcast, Reagan was 43. With the movie industry in recession, and his career waning, his agents had been bringing him offers to do TV shows. Like many movie actors at the time, Reagan was skittish about the small screen. But producers thought he was perfect for the anthology genre, which was still struggling to gain traction with audiences. He eventually signed on, helping produce the show, hosting it, and acting in a half-dozen dramas per season.
Less than a year after this episode aired, Reagan was a major primetime presence whom millions tuned in to see each week. Dean was a tragic, what-might-have-been figure, dead at age 24 from an automobile crash.
See also: Christopher Orr notes the peculiar parallel between Reagan's performance and Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry.