Notable roles: Knute Rockne, All American (1940), Bedtime for Bonzo (1951), The Killers (1964)
Political position: Governor of California (1967-1975), President of the United States (1980-1988)
Though he was never a Hollywood heavyweight, Ronald Reagan was still a fixture in show business during the ‘30s and ‘40s after starring in movies like Knute Rockne, All American and Bedtime for Bonzo. But as his star began to fade, he slowly transitioned to a political career, where he actually began as a Democrat. Soon after switching to a Republican, Reagan became the governor of California in 1967, where he vowed to “send the welfare bums back to work” and began the ball rolling on a conservative movement that would shape the next four decades.
After eight years as governor, he built up enough good will and political capital to make an unsuccessful first run at the White House in 1976, before finally winning the job in 1980. While the other actors on this list mostly remained mayors or congressmen, Reagan is the only one to reach the big prize. And, love him or hate him, he became one of the most influential presidents in history. His focus on big business and small government made the ‘80s a prosperous time for many Americans on Wall Street. You would get a much different reaction from the working and middle-class, though, who usually got the raw end of his “Reaganomics” package.
Political preferences aside, you have to give a guy props for beginning his career acting opposite a chimpanzee, becoming the head of the Screen Actor’s Guild, and then, ironically, almost tearing down unions altogether as a big-business president. He’s deplored by liberals, canonized by conservatives, and is the most successful example of an actor turned politician that the United States has ever seen.