Claim: Ronald Reagan was the original choice to play the lead role in the 1942 film Casablanca.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2000]
Origins: It's one of the most ubiquitous pieces of "What if?" alternative Hollywood history: Humphrey Bogart almost missed out on the role that established him as a first-rank movie star, and one of the mostly highly-regarded films in the canon of American cinema nearly turned out quite differently, because the studio's original choice for the starring role was someone
It's a fascinating piece of trivia that has been casually mentioned and cited in countless books, articles, sound bites, and quiz shows for years now. And it's wrong. Every bit of it. Ronald Reagan was never considered for any role in Casablanca, not even tentatively, and no actor other than Humphrey Bogart was ever seriously considered for the lead role of Rick Blaine. And "the studio" (Warner Bros.) had no "first choice" for the role, because the choice was not theirs to make.
The Casablanca saga began on
The legend of Ronald Reagan as Rick Blaine sprang from a press release the Warner Bros. publicity office planted with the Hollywood Reporter on
- At the time of this press release, the first line of the first draft of the screenplay for the movie that would become Casablanca had yet to be written. (The initial set of writers wouldn't even be assigned to the project until four days later.) Hal Wallis had two films going into production ahead of Casablanca to worry about, so he had not yet made any casting decisions, not even preliminary ones.
- This press release was not intended to convey factual information. Under the old studio system, when actors were bound to specific studios by contract, those studios had a vested interest in keeping the names of their stars in the news, and one of the ways this was accomplished was by planting items such as this one with cooperative film industry trade publications and other news outlets. Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan had already made two movies together, and this press release was a way of garnering some extra publicity for their previous film (King's Row), which was about to be released. Just a couple of weeks earlier, Warner Bros. had planted a similar item with the Los Angeles Times stating that Ann Sheridan and Dennis Morgan would be starring in Aloha Means Goodbye, a movie that was retitled Across the Pacific and made with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor playing the lead roles. In fact, the day after the Casablanca press release appeared in the newspapers, Warner Bros. hastily announced that because of changes in their production schedule, all three actors (Reagan, Sheridan, and Morgan) had been reassigned to appear in the film Shadow of Their Wings (which was eventually produced, without Reagan, as Wings for the Eagle) instead.
- Ronald Reagan couldn't possibly have played the lead in Casablanca even if Hal Wallis had wanted him for the part. Reagan was already a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve for whom the studio had been obtaining deferments for months, and once the United States entered
World War IIon 8 December1941, there was no chance Warner could prevent him from being called up to active duty long enough to finish Casablanca (which wasn't scheduled to begin production until April 1942). Reagan had already been slated for a role in Desperate Journey beginning in early February 1942, and he barely stayed with the studio long enough to complete that movie in April. Nonetheless, true to form, Warners planted yet another item in the Hollywood Reporter on 23 March1942 announcing Reagan would be starring in Buffalo Bill, a film that was made a year later with Joel McCrea handling the lead.
- Producer Hal Wallis never seriously considered anyone but Humphrey Bogart for the part of Rick Blaine. On
14 February1942, he had advised Warner to "please figure on Humphrey Bogart for Casablanca," and in a memo he wrote to studio chief Jack Warner on 3 April1942 he stated "Bogart is ideal for [Casablanca], and it is being written for him ..."
Any claims that some other actor such as Ronald Reagan or George Raft was "the studio's [first] choice" for the role of Rick Blaine stem from a misunderstanding of how Casablanca came to be made. The film was the product of an independent production company (Hal Wallis Productions) whose head had agreed to make films
The success of many a film or film career has been spurred by ample helpings of happenstance, fortuitous timing, or unforeseen circumstances. Luck had much to do with Casablanca's ultimate success, but not in the matter of its lead role.
Last updated: 6 February 2015
Harmetz, Aljean. Round Up the Usual Suspects. New York: Hyperion, 1992. ISBN 1-56282-941-6 (pp. 72-74). Lebo, Harlan. Casablanca: Behind the Scenes. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. ISBN 0-671-76981-2 (pp. 42-43).