W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, host of a popular daily music program on Texas radio, swept into the Texas governor's mansion way back in 1938. In years to come, other entertainers would also become governors, in Louisiana, Connecticut, California, Minnesota and, now, California again. Not only did O'Daniel get to be governor, he was re-elected in 1940 and, in 1941, won a special election to the U.S. Senate, narrowly defeating a young congressman named Lyndon Baines Johnson.
O'Daniel, says LBJ biographer Robert A. Caro, "mesmerized rural Texans through years of crooning his own songs ("Beautiful, Beautiful Texas," "The Boy Who Never Grew Too Old to Comb His Mother's Hair") and delivering his fundamentalist, evangelical homilies on a daily radio program."
Not only did O'Daniel perform on radio, he toured with his children - Patty Boy on fiddle, Mike on banjo and Molly on vocals - giving concerts. At one point in 1938, says LBJ biographer Robert Dallek, O'Daniel asked his radio audience whether he should run for governor. Fifty thousand fans said yes. He won the Democratic nomination and, since Texas had few Republicans back then, became governor.
In office, Caro writes, O'Daniel was "almost totally ignorant of the mechanics of government and unwilling to make even a pretense of learning."
As a senator, too, O'Daniel was pretty much a cipher, and his place in history is a footnote in the sprawling saga of LBJ. Yet his name, at least, resurfaced in the Coen brothers' 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The movie, set in Mississippi, features a vile politician known as Pass the Biscuits Pappy O'Daniel (quite unlike the original), played by Charles Durning.
In neighboring Louisiana, voters twice made country singer and actor Jimmie Davis governor (1944-1948, 1960-1964). Davis' chief claim to fame was recording the doleful song "You Are My Sunshine." He spent part of his first term in Hollywood making a movie called Louisiana, but when he left office the state had a $38 million surplus. He was later inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
It wasn't just the South that elected candidates from show business. Debonair John Davis Lodge, a scion of the Lodge political dynasty of Massachusetts, spent the 1930s co-starring in movies such as Little Women with Katharine Hepburn and The Scarlet Empress with Marlene Dietrich; in the late '40s, he won two terms to Congress from Connecticut. In 1950 and 1952, he was elected Connecticut's governor.
Lodge, says biographer Thomas A. DeLong, had a progressive record. His most noteworthy accomplishment was to push for construction of the Connecticut Turnpike - now officially the Governor John Davis Lodge Turnpike.
With Hollywood in their midst, California voters have often fallen hard for entertainers. They elected former actress Helen Gahagan Douglas to three terms in Congress starting in 1944. She lost a race for the Senate in 1950 to Richard M. Nixon. In 1964, Hollywood "hoofer" George Murphy won a Senate seat. Two years later, actor and TV pitchman Ronald Reagan, the Gipper in the movie Knute Rockne, All American, won the first of two terms as governor of the Golden State; much later Reagan would serve two terms as president, making him by far the most successful show-business figure in American politics.
"B-1 Bob" Dornan, a broadcaster, actor and producer, won nine terms in Congress. Sonny Bono, of Sonny & Cher, was also a congressman. Actor Clint Eastwood was mayor of upscale Carmel from 1986 to 1988. Current state senators include Sheila James Kuehl from early TV's The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.
Fred Grandy spent nine years (1977-1986) playing Gopher on ABC's The Love Boat, but only six as a congressman from Iowa (1987-1993). Ben Jones was Cooter on CBS' The Dukes of Hazzard for six years (1979-1985) and a congressman from Georgia for four (1989-1993).
Not all entertainers have been successful in winning political office. The losers include Roy Acuff (governor, Tennessee), Tex Ritter (U.S. senator, Tennessee), Shirley Temple and Ralph (The Waltons) Waite (both U.S. House, California), and Nancy Kulp of The Beverly Hillbillies (U.S. House, Pennsylvania).
Tennessee lawyer-politician Fred Dalton Thompson switched to acting (No Way Out, The Hunt for Red October), back to politics for a term in the Senate (1997-2003), then back to acting, playing the district attorney on NBC's venerable Law & Order.
In 1998, professional wrestler and radio host Jesse "The Body" Ventura stunned Minnesota by winning the race for governor as an insurgent independent. His four-year tenure was rocky, to say the least, but perhaps it helped make the political arena safe for entertainers with monstrous biceps.