How A Chimp Nearly Killed Ronald Reagan

In the history of the U.S. presidency, there have been many occasions where the country’s leader has narrowly survived extreme peril at some point in their lives. Andrew Jackson, for instance, nearly became the first victim of a presidential assassin. By a stroke of luck, both of the attacker’s pistols failed, after which Jackson proceeded to beat him with his cane. Teddy Roosevelt similarly survived an assassination attempt, as well as a near fatal trip to the Amazon. Meanwhile, decades later, future presidents George H.W. Bush and John F. Kennedy both nearly died in the Pacific Theater of World War II.

Ronald Reagan, another World War II veteran, was nearly killed in a 1981 assassination attempt, which paralyzed press secretary James Brady. This was not, however, Reagan’s first brush with death. In 1951 Reagan’s career as an actor was still going, and that year he starred alongside Diana Lynn and Peggy the Chimpanzee in the film “Bedtime for Bonzo” (the trailer is posted on YouTube). Reagan was often kidded about this credit in his filmography. While the film is a pleasant piece of Hollywood fluff, it also marks the time when one of the future president’s co-stars nearly strangled him to death.

Reagan's chimpanzee co-star unintentionally strangled him

Human interactions with chimpanzees are exceptionally inadvisable in the first place. The primates have immensely greater strength than a human, and sharp teeth that have proven capable of completely disfiguring, as well as killing, humans (via Live Science). Per observations of their behavior in the wild, chimpanzees have displayed exceptionally human-like capacities for war, factionalism, and even sadism. Observations of the 1970s Gombe war between rival chimpanzee groups in particular forever changed contemporary notions of them as completely passive and friendly (via Slate).

In 1951 this knowledge was not yet widely known, and even though Peggy was a juvenile, Reagan learned of her species’ strength the hard way. While on set, she became fixated on Reagan’s necktie and began to pull on it. This act tightened the knot, rapidly restricting the actor’s airway until he eventually managed to get away from her and had the tie quickly cut from his neck (via Mental Floss). After the film’s premiere to a public and critical reception that was lukewarm to negative, and possibly also because of this brush with death, Reagan dismissed the notion of appearing in future Bonzo films.

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