Richard M. Nixon has proved an attractive character for actors and comedians
Among those who have played him: Dan Aykroyd, Frank Langella and John Cusack
Explore the behind-the-scenes drama that gave rise to some of the most influential American leaders. Narrated by Kevin Spacey, CNN Original Series “Race for the White House” airs Sundays at 9p ET.
Oh, Richard Nixon. Such a character you are.
Perhaps no other modern president has been impersonated, parodied and portrayed so often, and why not? The brilliant and tragic Nixon was positively Shakespearean: jowly, with a swooping nose, guttural voice, unfortunate grin and overeager victory-sign pose, combined with the mind of a chess player and the eyes of an obsessive.
And that biography. You can’t reckon with American history – especially the history of the ‘70s – without reckoning with Richard M. Nixon. He rose quickly – vice president at age 39 – crashed abruptly, came back to rise even higher and then went down in the ignominy of Watergate. (Historian Rick Perlstein even titled his chronicle of the ‘60s and early ‘70s “Nixonland.”)
The material writes itself. No wonder so many performers have had Nixon to kick around. Here are some of the best who have taken their shot:
1. Dan Aykroyd
Impressionists Rich Little and David Frye may have nailed the voice and the mannerisms, but in the “Saturday Night Live” sketch “The Final Days” (written by Al Franken and Tom Davis), Aykroyd found something deeper and more corrosive.
The sketch, based on the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein book, includes a segment in which Nixon talks to the paintings in the White House. “They’re going to find out about you someday,” he says to a picture of John F. Kennedy. “Having sex with women – the president, within these very walls! That never happened when Dick Nixon was in the White House.”
Aykroyd’s manic bitterness captured Nixon’s dangerous side and also showed that the early “SNL” would take no prisoners when it came to politics.
2. Philip Baker Hall
If Aykroyd’s Nixon is played for some frightening laughs, then Hall’s version, in Robert Altman’s 1984 film “Secret Honor,” is simply frightening.
The actor, perhaps better known for his roles in Paul Thomas Anderson films, doesn’t look much like the president, but in this one-man show he plows a paranoid energy into the part, acting out a complex psychodrama and bizarre conspiracy theory.
3. Anthony Hopkins
Hopkins, who won an Oscar for playing serial killer Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs,” took on the 37th president in Oliver Stone’s 1995 film “Nixon.”
Though he was criticized as over the top (Hopkins “brings plenty of Hannibal Lecter to Richard Nixon, a man who doesn’t really need any more Hannibal Lecter brought to him,” wrote Alex von Tunzelmann in a 2010 appraisal), he offers some sympathy for the beleaguered president in his portrayal.
4. Dan Hedaya
Hedaya played Nixon for laughs in the 1999 film “Dick,” a loopy story about two teenage girls who stumble on Watergate and become Deep Throat. Hedaya looks something like the president, though he exaggerates Nixon’s tics.
Of course, in a movie that features Harry Shearer as G. Gordon Liddy, Will Ferrell as Bob Woodward and Dave Foley as H.R. Haldeman, that’s par for the course.
5. Harry Shearer
Speaking of Shearer, the longtime voice of “The Simpsons’ ” Mr. Burns has a longtime fascination with Nixon. His series “Nixon’s the One” recently played on YouTube, and when “The Simpsons” needed a Nixon, Shearer’s the one who’s supplied the voice. (You may remember him from the “Simpsons” episode “Whacking Day.”)
Shearer thinks of the president as a “self-made man, self-destroyed man,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I think of it as the darkest kind of comedy.”
6. Billy West
“Futurama,” which was co-created by “The Simpsons’ ” Matt Groening, also has a Nixon – a head in a jar who became Earth’s president in the year 3000. (His face is also on the $300 and $1000 bills.) In the future, he’s a curmudgeonly tyrant, and Billy West, who supplies Nixon’s voice, has given him a werewolf-like “a-roo!” That touch was inspired by the 1960 presidential debates, West told “Fresh Air.”
“I said to my mom: Mom, it looks like he’s going to turn into a werewolf, you know, because it was like (Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man) Larry Talbot turning into the werewolf, you know,” he said. “That’s what it looked like to me. So that’s why I gave him that sort of thing.”
7. Frank Langella
In the movie “Frost/Nixon,” Langella emphasized Nixon’s slick side, the elder statesman trying to recover his reputation. Langella’s Nixon is smooth and clever – but eventually offers a tight-lipped apology to the American people for Watergate.
Langella said the role, which garned him an Oscar nomination, was a big challenge.
“It took me a long time to figure out how to walk the line,” he told The New York Times. “I didn’t want to do an impression; I wanted an evocation of him, an essence. And I also knew that whatever I did, I could never satisfy some people, especially the ones who just want to hate Nixon.”
He added, “But why shouldn’t he be human? Why shouldn’t he be sympathetic and touching, along with all the rest – vicious, cruel, a liar and a crook?”
8. John Cusack
The 2013 film “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” concerns the life of a White House butler (Forest Whitaker) over several decades of the 20th century. The portrayals of the various presidents are uneven, and Cusack’s Nixon earned a range of reviews.
“Maybe I’ve just seen ‘Say Anything…’ too many times, but I couldn’t think, for even a second, that Cusack’s Nixon was the same guy who gave the Checkers speech or covered up Watergate,” wrote New York magazine’s Jen Chaney.
On the other hand, director Daniels loved Cusack’s energy.
“John is a caged, rabid animal,” he told Empire.
9. Richard Nixon
But perhaps the best Richard Nixon was Nixon himself. He was a man of constant reinvention, an unlikely politician who forced himself into the arena and emerged victorious, only to undo himself.
His speeches, such as the Checkers speech or the talk to the Associated Press newspaper editors in which he maintained, “I am not a crook,” may be catnip to performers, but the original remains untoppable.
What performer could truly do him justice? He always was the one.