By the time the lights come up for this week's opening of Frost/Nixon at CAST, Hank West will need to dye his hair in order to portray David Frost. But he didn't need to audition. He was basically given the role last winter by director Michael Harris, when the two co-starred in Stones in His Pockets at The Warehouse in Cornelius. Harris comes by his British accent naturally, but playing night after night opposite West, he decided that the self-effacing actor had the ear for it.
"We always carpooled when we worked up in Cornelius, so that's when we talked about it," West recalls. "I saw the [Frost/Nixon] tour whenever it came with Stacy Keach — I really enjoyed the show. So I thought it might be a good challenge."
West did actually go to the auditions at 2424 N. Davidson St. — to read with the parade of hopefuls vying for the plum role of disgraced President Richard M. Nixon. (Lamar Wilson ended up landing the part.) Generations of artists and creatives have loathed Nixon perhaps even more than they venerate his suave rival, JFK, so it's always good box office to thrust the man with the famous five-o'clock shadow into the spotlight.
In that respect, playwright Peter Morgan's instincts are very much akin to Frost's. Back in 1977, Frost's career as a writer, producer and TV host was flagging after the cancellation of his syndicated talk show. Nixon was still the hottest interview prospect around, and Frost salivated at the prospect of landing an exclusive and resurrecting his fortunes. Meanwhile, Nixon had spent more than two years in seclusion after resigning the presidency and was experiencing cash-flow woes. So the offer of $600,000 plus a cut of the profits came at exactly the right moment for Tricky Dick, who also saw an opportunity to take advantage of Frost's inexperience and ignorance in a grand scheme to restore his prestige and regain an honored place in history.
The chemistry between Frost and Nixon was deliciously wicked — and American! — spiced with urgency and desperation. Interviews were taped over a 12-day period, winnowed down to five broadcast installments, with 45 million tuning in to the opener on May 4. It was the interview equivalent of two other match-ups of the era: the Fischer/Spassky chess tournament and Ali/Frazier boxing match.
"It's all about Nixon," West insists. "I'm just window dressing. Lamar is going to be wonderful. I've never worked with him before. He's a pretty intense guy — also an intense role, so he's going to be great."
But it's Frost who personifies the growth curve in Frost/Nixon. He's the intrepid David who takes on the quixotic enterprise of trying to put a political Goliath on the defensive. He's the hero of Morgan's script, so he's the man we needed to interview.
I invited West to have Frost standing nearby when we conversed by phone. The prospect of having Frost/West talk about Frost/Nixon was irresistible. I could see the headline. A little time-travel was necessary, but that's show biz.
Creative Loafing: How did a washout like you land this extraordinary series of interviews? You had no background as a journalist, no background as an American historian. Was it just absolute cheek?
Frost/West: It's true, I've done little fluff interviews, but I have interviewed the president before. Of course, this was during the presidential elections in '68. But I truly understand how you and other Americans would feel, having this somewhat unknown quantity interviewing this enormous political figure. But I feel like I succeeded. It all worked out.
Yes, but until it did, there must have been tremendous pressure — and tremendous humiliation — when after three, four interviews, you were getting absolutely nowhere in breaking the man down. In fact, it looked like the president was taking advantage of you.
I must confess I did feel that way. I think I was a bit over my head at the beginning, did not realize the strength that underlay this person sitting across from me. But I continued to fight, and I had a wonderful group helping me, some wonderful guys. They were absolutely brilliant in their assistance and in their advice and their confidence. So I think with the team, we did it.
Was there any part of the team preparation that enabled you to ask the right question and have that right degree of spark and fight in you to pursue Nixon to the point of an apology?
We took a break before those actual last interviews were done, which focused on Watergate, and it was at that time that Jim, Mr. Reston, was able to locate some additional information that had been lodged in those conversations that had not really been dug into. When we came back from this break — it was over Easter — he brought this information to me, and that was the realization that we may have something that we can finally, finally get some sort of confession or admission to what happened during the Watergate period.
I was able to elaborate on that information and to be more convincing in dealing with this information with the president. It had lain dormant, and I don't know why, but I think it took him aback that we did find this. Of course, that did make me feel a little bit more rejuvenated, a little bit more confident in my dealing with him.
Released from this seance, West was able to provide minimal insight into the team dynamics explored in Frost/Nixon, specifying that Tom Ollis will portray Reston in the CAST production, with Dink Nolen as Swifty Lazar. More intriguing to me was the possibility that, after getting inside David Frost and experiencing the resurrection of his career, West might also suddenly achieve boldness, strength and competence.
"It'll never happen," West answered flatly to such a prospect. "Nope. If it were going to happen, it would have happened by now, you know? No, no. That's a pipe dream."