To borrow from my favorite VH1 show, Richard Nixon is having the best year ever! Not only is he alive and well and enjoying his fifth term in the film Watchmen, but no less than two fine actors have brought him to life on stage and screen. First, Frank Langella brought his immensely engrossing portrayal of Nixon from Broadway to Ron Howard’s film adaptation of Frost/Nixon, earning an Oscar nomination in the process. Now, Stacy Keach, an esteemed actor that even other actors revere, has stepped into the role and made it his own in the current touring production of Frost/Nixon.
Keach is well known for playing Mike Hammer on television, but he has a long and distinguished theater career, as well as his film work (The Long Riders, American History X). I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Keach, who I had just been admiring for his performance in Oliver Stone’s W., and I found him extremely gracious and friendly.
NC: How did you approach playing such a famous and much-parodied person after playing a fictionalized version of George Bush’s spiritual advisor?
SK: Well the first thing I did after accepting the role was to go back and revisit the actual interviews between David Frost and Nixon. I remember when they actually happened and I was struck when I read Peter Morgan’s play ... I loved the way he, well, he took poetic license with the interviews. And he did some transpositions, and even though he’s faithful to the original interviews, he puts his own spin on it. And in doing so, he makes it very dramatic and very accessible to a modern audience. A lot of people, we’re discovering (especially young people), don’t really know what Watergate was all about. In some respects, because the movie is out now, it’s very good for people coming to see the play, the (film) ads act as an advertisement for the play Frost/Nixon.
I wanted to go back and say something about W. The wonderful thing about playing the character — I had the luxury of playing a non-historical role in W. He was an amalgamation, a compilation of various evangelical figures (James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Billy Graham). He was a combination of people, Earle Hudd was, he wasn’t a real person. But when I went down to Shreveport, Louisiana, to film W., Oliver Stone had arranged for me to meet with a couple of evangelical ministers, one of whom was this very aggressive, fire and brimstone sort of guy. And then I had another meeting with a very mild, very meek, very quiet, soft-spoken, professorial academic intellectual type of minister, and he had a sweetness about him. What I did was combine those two guys, and that was Earle Hudd.
When it comes to playing a historical role, all the obligations change because you are obligated to reflect the nature of the character in some fashion. Nixon, as written by Peter Morgan and as played by yours truly, is not an impersonation of an impression, and yet I have to talk a certain way that is Nixonian in order to convey the character. But the measure of success is not how well you emulate Nixon so much as how well you reveal what’s going on in his soul.
NC: Does the stage production resemble the film of Frost/Nixon?
SK: The stage production was the seed for the film. It was originally produced at the Donmar Warehouse in London in front of 250 people, and it was so successful, it moved to the West End, where it was also very successful. Then, it moved to Broadway, where Frank (Langella) won a Tony for it. Peter Morgan wrote the screenplay, so it is very faithful in terms of the dialogue. What the movie cannot do that the play does is give you the live image and the televised image simultaneously. So it’s like being at a sporting event or a rock concert.
NC: Having lived through Nixon, did you have any preconceptions about him?
SK: That’s a very good question. Having lived, as you say, through that whole era, Nixon was Mr. Bad Guy — he was satanic — he was destroying our nation. Watergate was probably the beginning of reality television. We were glued to our sets during these hearings. We got to know members of government. It was the first time something of that nature had really happened. Yes, the Kennedy assassinations were covered, but cable didn’t exist. You only had three networks. CNN wasn’t around.
Television is a very dominant theme in Frost/Nixon, the use of television, the use of image, how to project image on television. Those are the tactics and strategies that are discussed in the play. How best for David Frost, for example, to approach Nixon’s long-winded diatribes, because he goes on and on, in an effort to rehabilitate himself, which he never did.
Whereas David Frost did (get what he wanted from the interviews). David Frost got to throw off the shackles of being considered a talk show host/entertainer and became a serious journalist. It raised his stock considerably. He made the cover of Time and Newsweek, he’s written many books. He’s still around and he loves the fact that this play is out there. It keeps him alive.
NC: Who is your David Frost?
SK: Alan Cox. He’s wonderful, he’s just great. I’ve known Alan since he was born. His father, Brian Cox (L.I.E., X2: X-Men United), and I went to drama school together. We went to the London Academy of Dramatic Art together long before you were born (laughing). I was shooting a picture in London in 1971 and Brian and I were talking and he said (in a perfect Brian Cox voice), “I’ve just had a son! I’m going to call him Alan.” And now I’m working with him. I worked with him six years ago. We did a BBC Radio Broadcast of Booth Tarkington’s play The Plutocrat with Leslie Caron. Talk about esoteric! He’s great. I love playing together. We enjoy working together. It’s very important when you have a long tour that the two main guys not only like each other, but that they love working together.
NC: It would be very difficult if you didn’t!
SK: Oh, very, very. I would not want to be Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn doing Beckett years ago on the road! (laughing).
NC: Where does your heart lie, as far as performing? I know that you started out in theater (before doing films and television like Mike Hammer, Private Eye).
SK: I’ve said it before, it feels like millions of times, if you put a gun to my head and I could only choose one, it would be the theater.
Keach went on to explain that with rapidly changing technology, actors are having to adapt to new types of entertainment and how to get compensated for it, which is why there’s a threat of a Screen Actors Guild strike.
“That’s another reason why theater is a very good thing!” he said, laughing.
Editor's note: Since this interview was conducted, Stacy Keach suffered a mild stroke, but will return to the stage in Frost/Nixon this week. We here at Movie Dearest wish him the speediest of recoveries.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.