The Hero Who Saved His Hero

Ask some nine-year-olds what they want to be when they grow up, and you’ll probably get a lot of references to pop culture and entertainment — they aspire to be actors, athletes, and even YouTubers. And while YouTube is relatively new, the general trend of kids aspiring to be what they see on the screen isn’t. For example, in 1939, a movie where a law enforcement officer saves the day captured the attention of a nine-year-old named Jerry Parr. Inspired, Parr decided he wanted a career just like that — he wanted to follow the protagonist’s path, and to be the hero that saves the day.

Parr got his wish. Years later, he found a job just like the movie’s hero.

And then Parr saved the movie hero’s life.

The movie, titled “Code of the Secret Service,” tells the (fictional) story of a group of Mexican counterfeiters who stole engraving plates from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The Secret Service — in its role as the Treasury’s anti-counterfeiting law enforcement arm — investigates, and an agent named Brass Bancroft ultimately captures the ringleader. It was a forgettable film — it turned out so poorly that the producer didn’t even want to release it in theaters. (The studio, Warner Bros., overruled him.) The actor who played Bancroft would later call the movie “the worst picture I ever made.”

But to nine-year-old Jerry Parr, the movie was perfection. He’d later tell National Geographic that he “made [his] dad take [him] to the movie quite a few times.” And his affinity for the movie inspired him to follow in Brass Bancroft’s footsteps. Parr decided that when he grew up, he’d join the Secret Service. It wasn’t an easy path — most rookie Treasury agents are in their mid-to-late 20s, and at that age, Parr was an electrician. But he didn’t give up. In 1962, at age 32, he joined the Service as the oldest first-year agent in his class. 

Fast forward nearly two decades and Parr found himself on Presidential protection duty. President Ronald Reagan was exiting the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. when a would-be assassin fired six shots at him. Parr acted quickly. Per the New York Times, Parr “grabbed the president, shoved him into a waiting limousine and then jumped in on top of him. A shift supervisor grabbed both men’s feet, shoved them further inside and slammed the door behind them.” Parr then ordered the driver to race off to the White House, and when it turned out that one of the bullets had hit Reagan, Parr diverted the car to the George Washington Univerity hospital’s emergency room. Reagan suffered some rather bad injuries but ultimately, he survived, in part because Parr’s quick (and good!) decision making. Parr was one of the men Reagan had to thank for saving his life.

But perhaps Reagan should have thanked himself. Parr, it turned out, was only a Secret Service because of Reagan’s pre-politics history. Reagan’s early career was as an actor. One of his first roles? He played Brass Bancroft in the movie “Code of the Secret Service.”

Bonus fact: The Secret Service’s protection detail duties extend beyond the President and other U.S. officials. As needed, they’ll also defend the families of people who are regarded as criminals. One of Jerry Parr’s early assignment is proof, as he’d recount in his autobiography. He was tasked with defending Marina Oswald and Marguerite Oswald, the wife and mother, respectively, of the Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Both were scheduled to testify in front of the Warren Commission (which investigated the assassination) but were receiving death threats. As witnesses, the surviving Oswalds were in need of protection, and the Secret Service so provided

From the Archives: The Moneymaker: The tale of a creative, penny-ante counterfeiter.