The Time Ronald Reagan Was Nearly Strangled By A Chimp

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The fact that actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan once co-starred with a chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo (1951) provided him with a long-running source of embarrassment after his political career took off decades later. The movie was, according to Johnny Carson, “a favorite of old movie buffs and Democrats” while other critics went on to cite Reagan as “the first president in history to be out-acted by a chimp.” In his own words, “I fought a losing battle with a scene-stealer with a built-in edge: he was a chimpanzee!” Making the film was certainly not monkey business; in fact, one unfortunate run-in with its leading ape nearly cost Reagan his life.

Known professionally as Peggy, the trained chimp in question was actually a female playing a role designed for the opposite sex (this was disguised by a tuft of fur carefully situated between her legs). According to witnesses, the vivacious and curious Peggy had been coached to perform hundreds of actions on command, including weeping, snarling, and puckering up.

One day on the set, Peggy’s natural inquisitiveness got the better of her. Spying Reagan’s necktie, she grabbed it with both hands and began to pull. Startled, the actor tried to back away, but the harder he resisted, the harder she pulled, nearly suffocating our fortieth president in the process. Eventually, Reagan was able to break free of her grasp—but by then, he later recalled, the knot in his tie was “as small as my fingernail.” Far too tight to be untied by hand, the garment had to be cut off Reagan’s neck by a nearby crewmember.

To see Peggy (and Reagan) actually following the script, here’s a brief snippet from the film: