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Secret Service's Hollywood Allure Fueled By Its Secrecy

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Secret Service's Hollywood Allure Fueled By Its Secrecy

National Security

Secret Service's Hollywood Allure Fueled By Its Secrecy

Secret Service's Hollywood Allure Fueled By Its Secrecy

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Before Secret Service agents found themselves the butt of late-night TV jokes, they were more used to being portrayed in big-budget Hollywood movies. We look at the service through Hollywood's lens.


All the security stumbles and the leadership shakeup have put the spotlight on the U.S. Secret Service this week. Late night comedians are doing what they do in such moments.


JIMMY FALLON: The intruder got all the way to the East room, which got worse when the Secret Service said woah, there's an East room?


FALLON: Take a tour of this place.

SIMON: Of course the Secret Service has long been fodder for Hollywood as NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Let's start back in 1939 when the U.S. Secret Service had an early star turn in the epic - OK, maybe it wasn't so epic - "Code Of The Secret Service" with leading man Ronald Reagan. Reagan played agent Brass Bancroft, who is headed off on assignment when another agent asked to tag along.


EDDIE FOY JR.: (As Gabby) What assignment did you get?

RONALD REAGAN: (As Brass Bancroft) The Treasury stakeout.

EDDIE FOY JR.: (As Gabby) Right down my alley. When do we leave?

REAGAN: (As Brass Bancroft) Well, you'll have to include yourself out of this trip, Gabby. Well, you couldn't go anyway, aren't you guarding the president?

EDDIE FOY JR.: (As Gabby) Nah, he went fishing again.

GONYEA: The agent is action hero. That's how the Secret Service was portrayed for decades. Then came the early '60s, and the exploration of more comedic possibilities. This is from a musical written by the legendary Irving Berlin. His last show ever, called "Mr. President." The character singing is the first daughter.


ANITA GILLETTE: (Singing) The Secret Service makes me nervous. When I am dating, they are waiting to observe us.

GONYEA: A side note - the musical premiered at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. Among those attending were the President and Mrs. Kennedy. As the years passed it became a Hollywood tradition to milk the Secret Service for laughs. In the '90s, the comedian and actor Sinbad starred in this Disney feature called "First Kid."


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Secret Service agent Sam Simms has a style all his own.

BILL COBBS: (As Speet) Simms, what is that? This is a black-tie affair.

SINBAD: I know sir and I got it covered. I'm black and I'm wearing a tie.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: But now he's facing his most dangerous assignment - protecting himself from the president's son.

GONYEA: And for the grown-ups, there was "Guarding Tess" with Nicholas Cage on the security detail for an eccentric and demanding former first lady, played by Shirley MacLaine. The agents find themselves in a grocery store.


BRANT VON HOFFMAN: (As Bob Hutcherson) I need a price check on Lesieur baby peas.

NICHOLAS CAGE: (As Doug Chesnic) They're on special today, two for $.59.

HOFFMAN: (As Bob Hutcherson) Copy that, Doug, but I believe we've lost interest in peas, repeat, lost interest in peas.

GONYEA: Then, there's the action-adventure genre. Hollywood loves plots that put the leader of the free world at risk, and you can't do that without making the Secret Service look overwhelmed at best, inept at worst.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: The most protected building on earth has fallen.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: The president is being held hostage.

GONYEA: That's "Olympus Has Fallen" from last year. Not to be confused with the movie "White House Down," also from last year. That one features a guy whose application to the Secret Service is rejected. He saves the day anyway.


CHANNING TATUM: (As Cale) This is John Cale. I'm in the White House. They've taken the building and they're holding hostages, including my daughter.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: Alpha one, do you have the target?

GONYEA: Then there's the Secret Service agent as bad guy plot line. That was in "Air Force One" with President Harrison Ford. There are notable examples of the Secret Service being portrayed in a more realistic way, like on the TV series "The West Wing." By most accounts, the gold standard is a Clint Eastwood movie from 1993 - "In The Line Of Fire." He plays an agent who'd been on duty with JFK in Dallas.


CLINT EASTWOOD: (As Frank Horrigan) For years I've been listening to all these idiots on bar stools with all their pet theories on Dallas.

GONYEA: 30 years later, Eastwood's character is still tormented.


EASTWOOD: (As Frank Horrigan) I don't know why I didn't react. I should've reacted. I should've been running flat out. I just couldn't believe it.

GONYEA: Ultimately, the secrecy that surrounds the United States Secret Service is the thing that fuels its allure and its mystique for storytellers. And it's that characteristic that will continue to make the agency so irresistible to the world of popular culture, with or without more troubling episodes like those revealed this week. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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