"He was Satan personified," says Stacy Keach, who has signed on to play our second-worst commander in chief in the national tour of Frost/Nixon.
That Peter Morgan–written play centers on the epochal Watergate-fueled TV square-off between the former president and English talk-show host David Frost, and is most famous for Nixon's tacit admission of guilt. Keach — perhaps best known as TV detective Mike Hammer — has big shoes to fill. Not only is this one of his most serious roles to date, but he also has to contend with Frank Langella, who received praise for his portrayal of Nixon in both the Broadway production and the successful recent film adaptation.
The Phoenix sat down with Keach to ask him what it was like to play the man he remembers "vividly" and compares to the Devil himself.
How do you feel now that you're inhabiting his character?
I have tremendous compassion and empathy for him. I don't consider him to be an angel, but I do have a lot of respect for his humanity. [Playwright] Peter Morgan has done more to rehabilitate Nixon — certainly more than the actual Frost/Nixon interviews themselves did.
Nixon, of course, had his own rehab plan, writing books as a statesnam, trying not to make his place in history be Tricky Dicky, the crook.
Trying to justify his position, yes. Well, I think with time and distance from the experience — and by virtue of the past eight years, where we've witnessed the executive branch in complete shambles — Nixon looks like a hero.
The movie's great. Why should we go to the theater?
The play is what created the movie. The live experience affords you the privilege of seeing the televised image and the live actors simultaneously. The movie does not do that. The interesting thing is, since the inception of the movie, the reaction has been really different — really animated. It's a very symbiotic relationship between the film and the movie. There's a lot of tension maintained throughout. It's on-the-edge-of-your seat, a thriller.
Langella received huge praise. Is it intimidating to take over?
Totally intimidating. Wish I'd never put on the wig. [Laughs] No, Tony Hopkins and Frank are both friends of mine and they're both wonderful Nixons. It's become a classical role in a sense. He's a tragic figure, an iconic figure. You're Hamlet, Lear, Richard III, you're always compared to others; you're Nixon, no different.
Do you try to sound like Nixon?
[In Nixon's voice] No, I don't go anywhere near Nixon's voice. I think that would be a terrible thing to do. [In his own voice] Of course I do. But the measure of success is not how well I emulate his voice — it's his behavior and his tone. I think it's how much I'm able to convey to you something about the nature of [Nixon's] personality, the soul you might not have known.
Wow. You used the words "Nixon" and "soul" in the same sentence.
I know. He did have one. I think he did.
Frost/Nixon is at the Colonial Theatre January 27 through February 8.