(This piece was first published June 4, 2007.)
It was a firm handshake accompanied by a warm smile. Never ever, could or would I have guessed that I was shaking the hand of one of the greatest men of our time — no other than the 40th president of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan.
It was in the early sixties, to the best of my recollection. I was a young inspired startup filmmaker then, just about to make his first feature film at the tender age of 22. I still spoke with a strong European accent as I had immigrated to the United States only 10 years earlier as an Estonian refugee via Germany and was experiencing, in reality and the real sense of the word, “the American Dream”.
It was a rainy day in Chicago. My associate of same age, Larry Leveret, a press agent and I were about to have our morning coffee at a downtown Randolph Street coffee shop, when a man in a trench coat passed us and, nodding slightly, walked on. It was my partner Larry who, with sudden recognition of the man, ran after him and brought the man in the trench coat back to where I was standing. Larry introduced me as his producer friend Bill Rebane. I was speechless for at least several seconds before I realized that it was Ronald Reagan that offered me his hand with a calming smile and an opening line: “I understand you’re making a picture?” While flushed and momentarily dumbfounded, I managed to quickly recite my efforts in connection with making my science fiction film, titled Terror at Halfday.
The drizzle had turned to rain. Recognizing this uncomfortable situation, Mr. Reagan suggested that we should move under the marquee of the United Artists Theater, where our conversation continued for the better part of ten minutes. I recall another question asked by him. Where I was from originally? When I stated Estonia, he followed, “How long have you been in America?” When I told him ten years, he complimented me on the good English I spoke.
To belabor the rest of our conversation would be less impacting than the fact that it was only after Mr. Reagan became Governor of California and President of the United States when I realized that here was a man who at the time I met him was a Star with way over fifty movie credits behind him. And yet, there he stood on a Randolph Street sidewalk with two fledgling filmmakers in the rain, having a casual conversation and expressing genuine interest in a project he had no knowledge of, other than our ramblings of hopes and wishes.
The outcome of this half-a-century ago meeting almost resulted in Ronald Reagan starring in my film, Terror at Halfday, opposite June Travis. As it turned out, it was the investors that were lined up for the film who later thought it was not worth investing in, as they considered Ronald Reagan at that time a “Has Been” and not worth ten cents at the box office.
For me, however, the big picture was that the impact of this memorable meeting really did not resonate in my soul until President Ronald Reagan said “Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev” and, with that, liberated my home country of Estonia from the grips of Communism. But even that pales in comparison to the man Ronald Reagan, who took the time out, getting wet in the rain to listen to a young man’s dreams and ambitions. It is this latter truth and the realization of same that fills me with pride and overwhelming respect for the great human being that Ronald Reagan, “the man” and “leader of the free world”, really was.
During his presidency and as I matured, I realized the impact this meeting and Ronald Reagan’s presidency have made on my life. He taught me what it is to be an American, to follow my convictions, to believe in myself and the perpetuation of the American Dream. If that still exists and is possible, it will be because of our great President, Ronald Reagan. Like millions of other Americans, I will miss his shining example of leadership greatly.