Los Angeles — Richard Crenna raises his forearm and waves his hand. The fingers are just a little splayed and gently curved forward. The gesture is unmistakable it's Ronald Reagan's.
Crenna is seated in a sunlit room in his San Fernando Valley hillside home. He's smiling, with the charm that comes as naturally to him as to the man he portrays in "The Day Reagan Was Shot."
He's illustrating one of the subtle ways he depicts the 40th U.S. president in this movie, which chronicles the behind-the-scenes chaos following the 1981 assassination attempt.
Reagan's staff, cabinet, doctors and wife, Nancy, struggle over how to handle the crisis and who's in charge of the government as the president lies close to death with a bullet lodged between his heart and lung.
Richard Dreyfuss portrays Secretary of State Alexander Haig; Holland Taylor is the first lady. The Showtime production premieres at 8 p.m. today (with encores Wednesday and Dec. 18 and 29).
Capturing the humor
Avoiding anything that could be construed as an impersonation, Crenna chose the "less is more" approach. He wanted to capture "the spirit of the man, the essence of the man."
He used certain mannerisms and vocal inflections, but "tried to just brush over, not try to do a big 'Weell."'
He laughs as he utters Reagan's take on "well" good humor was another Reagan characteristic Crenna felt was essential to depict. Writer and director Cyrus Nowrasteh suggested he watch the videotape "Stand up Reagan," which shows the president telling jokes.
"He told the same joke so many times that they would intercut it from various dinner speeches, picking it up as if it was all one. But he knew which jokes to tell each time," Crenna comments.
Even after being shot, Reagan made jokes, famously telling his wife that he "forgot to duck," and saying he hoped the doctors operating on him were Republicans.
Crenna has plenty of jokes to tell himself, including the quip, "My biggest challenge was not to get bed sores." Of course, he had much more to do than just lie in a hospital bed with a red rinse in his hair.
The actor had a nodding acquaintance with Reagan during the politician's years as a fellow actor and as president of the Screen Actors Guild, but only really met him once at an intimate dinner party shortly after his presidential term was over.
The TV role raised Crenna's admiration for Reagan, particularly regarding his courageous demeanor following the shooting, which occurred as he was leaving a Washington hotel.
Crenna, 74 on Nov. 30, was enormously impressed by Nowrasteh's meticulous research and his skill in re-creating these events. Only weeks before being offered the role, Crenna, by "strange happenstance," had stayed at the same hotel, and had asked the doorman to show him exactly where John Hinckley Jr. had fired six bullets at Reagan and his entourage.
Hinckley is portrayed in the movie by Christian Lloyd.
Nowrasteh says he cast Crenna because, like Reagan, "people are drawn to him. ... He loosens people up, even when there's tension."
Proud to be a 'cockroach'
Born to parents who ran a downtown Los Angeles hotel, Crenna sidestepped into acting as a schoolboy when he was picked with a group of his friends for "Boy Scout Jamboree," a local radio show.
He played bumbling student Walter Denton in "Our Miss Brooks," a popular mid-1950s high school series. That explains why in the 1993 action parody "Hot Shots! Part Deux" his character was called Col. Denton Walters. He was Col. Samuel Trautman in three "Rambo" action movies. His wealth of credits also includes his Emmy-winning performance in "The Rape of Richard Beck."
He also played H. Ross Perot in the 1986 miniseries "On Wings of Eagles," about the Iran hostage crisis. Later, when running for president, Perot jokingly told Crenna, "I am using you in all my campaign posters."
These days Crenna has a recurring role as Jared Duff in the CBS legal drama "Judging Amy."
He would rather play with his three granddaughters than sign on for some of the subpar scripts he's offered, but says he's always ready for a good challenge if Hollywood can find its way to provide one.
"The business isn't as much fun as it was. We don't have the laughs we used to have. There used to be a real camaraderie," he says. He decries the trend for instant celebrity and lack of appreciation for the past, then chuckles a bit over his old codger attitude.
"I don't consider myself a dinosaur. I'm more of a cockroach. I'm never going to disappear. I intend to be around when everyone else is gone."