Richard M. Nixon once said, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore . . . "
It wasn't true, of course. That was in 1962 when he'd just lost a gubernatorial election. He came back to be elected president twice. And especially since his resignation on Aug. 9, 1974 -- he feared impeachment and conviction for his role in the Watergate scandal -- the 37th president of the United States not only has been kicked around but also prodded, explored, satirized and vilified in books, documentaries, plays, movies and TV programs.
Nixon, who died in 1994 at age 81, has also proven to be a juicy character for actors. Anthony Hopkins received an Oscar nomination for portraying the president in Oliver Stone's 1995 "Nixon"; Beau Bridges earned an Emmy nomination as the commander in chief in the 1995 TV movie "Kissinger and Nixon," and Frank Langella won the Tony Award last year for his work in Peter Morgan's play "Frost/Nixon."
And now the 70-year-old Langella is on the shortlist for potential best actor Oscar nominees for his acclaimed turn in the film version of the play that was released last Friday.
Dan Hedaya, who played Nixon in the 1999 satire "Dick," believes the fascination with Nixon is akin to why Shakespearean characters such as King Lear, Richard III and Hamlet are perpetually interesting.
"He was complex, extremely bright, deeply immoral, deeply insecure and deeply arrogant," Hedaya says.
"As far as what he did positively, he opened up relations with China. He was able to redeem himself, it seemed, in later years . . . but what he did to disgrace himself -- there is a certain patheticness."
Though "Dick" was a comedy, Hedaya opted to play him straight. "There are some extremely serious moments where you see his rage," he says.
Finding his inner Nixon turned out to be much easier than he initially thought it would be, the actor says. "They arranged for this speech coach," Hedaya recalls. "He came over and, after about 10 minutes, something happened. I guess it's referred to as channeling."
Hedaya channeled the role so believably that there were times when the cast and crew treated him oddly. "On the set," he says, "if we would break for lunch and I would be leaving the Oval Office and walking down the hallway, people moved like I was the president!"
Voice actor Billy West probably plays the most unusual Nixon -- he is the voice of Nixon's head on the animated comedy "Futurama," which aired on Fox and is now living on in the DVD universe.
West believes Nixon is still such a popular subject because of his flaws. "I mean, it's almost like picking on a wounded animal," he says. "He did a lot of screwed-up things. It's like love and hate are on the opposite sides of the same coin. You know if you hate somebody, it means you care enough to hate him. He was this delightful victim, hapless. The guy, wherever he stood, the rain cloud was over his head."
His Nixon always ends his speeches with a wolf howl. He got that idea from watching the famed Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, when he was just 7.
"Kennedy had that made-for-TV-game-show appearance and Nixon was a mess," West recalls. "He was sweating and looked like a guy who stepped out of a bus accident. The reason I do the 'arooo' is that throughout the interview, the lower half of his face got darker and darker and he began to look like he was turning into a werewolf."
To prepare for "Kissinger and Nixon," Bridges went to the Nixon Library and studied the 1977 tapes of David Frost's interviews with Nixon to get down his mannerisms, movement and voice. "I thought it would be interesting to go for broke and look as much like Nixon as I could," the actor explains. "We did full-on prosthetics. It was almost like a full mask."
Though never a fan of Nixon or his presidency, Bridges wanted to make sure "I got a total sense of him and what he was like personally with his family and friends. I didn't think you could just hate this guy for two hours. It was my responsibility to find some redeeming graces in him. What impressed me the most when I got into this is that the presidency is a momentous job. There are so many challenges and surprises and that even a saint would be challenged by this job."
Langella makes it a point not to impose his personal views on any character he plays, whether it be Dracula or Nixon.
"When you are playing somebody that other people have strong feelings about, you have to remove yourself from any judgment of any kind," Langella says.
King is a Times staff writer.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times