Stacy Keach loves Hunter S. Thompson's writing, and when I interviewed the actor a few weeks ago, he just happened to have a book with him that included the journalist's eulogy to Richard Nixon:
"Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it,'' Keach read over the phone from Boston. "He was the real thing, a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family . . .''
Keach stopped reading. "That's from a Rolling Stone article Thompson wrote the day after Nixon died,'' he said. "Nobody got Nixon better than Thompson.''
Keach himself has become an expert on Nixon, because he is playing him in the national tour of Frost/Nixon. Peter Morgan's play about the 1977 TV interviews of the disgraced ex-president by David Frost comes to Tampa this week.
Initially, to prepare for the role, the actor experimented with makeup, wigs and facial prosthetics to help him resemble Nixon. "I had a hairpiece, a nose, chin and cheeks made, contact lenses, eyebrows, teeth even,'' he said. "But when I put them all together, my wife said I looked like a Chicago gangster. So I threw them all out, except for the hairpiece.''
There have been many Nixon impersonators, from Rich Little and David Frye and on, but Keach wasn't interested in that sort of portrayal. "The measure of success is not how well I impersonate him, even though there are Nixonian things I do,'' he said, his voice dropping into a Nixonian drone. "Nixon is very easy to imitate. The trick is not to take him into the realm of caricature.''
One performance Keach did study was Anthony Hopkins as the ex-president in the movie Nixon. "The dark side of Nixon is brought out by Tony,'' he said. "But Morgan's rendition of Nixon is much lighter. There's more dimension in terms of his humanity. Paranoia is not a dominant color in this characterization.''
The original players
Playing Nixon has been quite a trip for Keach, 67, who vividly remembers the Watergate hearings. "During those years I was living with (folk singer) Judy Collins, so I was definitely on the left side of the spectrum,'' he said. "We were glued to our TV set. We thought Nixon was the worst thing that ever happened to American politics and couldn't wait for him to be brought down.''
Keach watched the Frost-Nixon interviews in 1977, three years after the president resigned, but they didn't make a huge impression on him at the time. The actor had met Nixon's interrogator a few years earlier when making his Broadway debut, playing Buffalo Bill in Indians by Arthur Kopit. He was a guest on Frost's talk show.
"I did my very first television interview as a young actor in New York with David Frost,'' Keach said. "Barbara Eden was also on the show and I made a complete fool of myself. David was questioning Barbara, and he asked, 'Well, my dear, how do you feel about exposing your navel (in I Dream of Jeannie)?' And then he asked me if I'd like to work with Miss Eden, and I said, 'Yes, but only if I can show my navel.' And David said, 'Oh, do show us your navel,' which of course I proceeded to do. I got a call from my mother that night who said I had embarrassed the family.''
Revising the past?
Frost was the victor over Nixon in their televised encounter, showing the world that he should be taken seriously as a journalist when he got the ex-president to admit to wrongdoing.
"I let down my friends,'' Nixon conceded. "I let down the country. I let down our system of government, and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but now think it too corrupt . . . I let the American people down, and I have to carry that burden with me the rest of my life.''
But Keach thinks that Nixon, who died in 1994, is getting his turn now.
"Morgan's play has done more to rehabilitate Nixon than anything previously,'' he said. "I think that his likability comes through because his humanity is revealed in terms of his self-deprecating humor and his self-consciousness about his image — the perspiration, the shadow of his beard.''
In a pivotal scene in the play, Nixon makes a drunken late-night phone call to Frost before the taping of their segment on Watergate. "Nixon reveals his soul,'' Keach said. "From Morgan's point of view, I think, what made Nixon tick was his need to be loved and respected, and that's very human. It's hard not to identify with that.''
The late-night phone call never happened, but Keach doesn't have a problem with the playwright taking liberties with the facts. "Much of what Morgan does is revisionist history,'' he said. "He transposes things. He takes them out of context. Nixon never admitted during the Watergate portion of the Frost interviews, for example, that if you're president you're above the law. That was said in another interview. But I think the poetic license allows us to see what's going on inside this guy.''
Morgan, a British writer who wrote the screenplays to The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, also wrote the new movie Frost/Nixon. Frank Langella, who played Nixon, is an Oscar nominee for best actor.
Keach does not plan to see the movie until his time in the play is over. He thinks that the play's director, Michael Grandage, was smart about how he included TV cameras and a monitor in the staging.
"The great thing Grandage did is he put the monitor at the back side of the proscenium,'' Keach said. "So in order to look at the monitor you have to go through the actor first. You're able to see the televised image and the live actor simultaneously, much like being at a sporting event or a rock concert. It's a layer of expression that you can't get in the movie.''
Keach has had an interesting, varied career. His credits include acclaimed movies like Fat City, a gritty boxing drama directed by John Huston ("Being able to work with Huston was one of the highlights of my life''), and The Long Riders, a western starring him and his brother, James, as Frank and Jesse James. On TV, he portrayed private eye Mike Hammer.
Shakespeare has provided Keach with a lot of stage work. He has played Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear, tragic roles that remind him of Nixon. "Interestingly, as soon as the Frost/Nixon tour closes in May, I am going to do King Lear in Washington,'' he said. "I'll be very curious to see what new colors I will have found in Lear as a result of having done Nixon.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.