In The Mix

Fortitude and Forgiveness

Tim Matheson called on his memories to play Ronald Reagan.

Nicole Pajer
  • Steve Schofield

Tim Matheson remembers exactly where he was on March 30, 1981, when John Hinckley, Jr., attempted to assassinate then President Ronald Reagan outside the Washington Hilton.

“I was shooting a movie on the Hudson River with [director] Bruce Paltrow,” he says. “My first thought was, ‘Who is going to take a shot at a sweet old guy like that?’”

Thirty-five years later, the California native clung to that memory while preparing to reenact the scene himself in the National Geographic telefilm Killing Reagan (available on DVD, iTunes, Google Play and Amazon).

Matheson studied several autobiographies to prep for the role and worked with a dialect coach to capture Reagan’s voice. “My biggest fear,” he admits, “was that in a bad take, I could come across as Johnny Carson doing Reagan.”

Portraying the 40th president gave Matheson a new appreciation for a man he did not tend to agree with. “I had really strong feelings about Reagan, not always positive. But to try and find the emotional journey behind this event — and how it impacted his life and Nancy’s — was really the core of it.”

Matheson was moved by Reagan’s reaction when he found out who shot him. “He said, ‘I have to forgive him. I have to say a prayer for him or I can’t move forward with my life.’ I thought that was very Zen.”

As an actor who’s been honing his craft since the early ‘60s, Matheson has compiled credits ranging from National Lampoon’s Animal House to The West Wing (for which he earned two Emmy nominations). It all started, he says, with a childhood viewing of Witness for the Prosecution. “I looked at Charles Laughton in that part and thought, I want to be him!”

How has he achieved such longevity? Like the late president, he’s not one to turn away from a personal test. “The bigger the challenge, the better the rush.” 

This article orignally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2017