Lane Smith, 69; Character Actor Gained Fame Playing Nixon in ‘The Final Days’

Times Staff Writer

Lane Smith, the actor who portrayed President Nixon in the 1989 docudrama “The Final Days” and apoplectic Daily Planet editor Perry White in the 1990s television series “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” has died. He was 69.

Smith died Monday at his Los Angeles home of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease, his family said.

A veteran stage actor with scores of character parts in film and television, Smith achieved instant fame when he took on the role of Nixon in the production based on the book “The Final Days” by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Smith’s performance earned him a Golden Globe nomination.


Although he had been acting for three decades when he was cast as Nixon, Smith told Newsday when the show aired that he considered the role “a tremendous career break.”

“It’s an actor’s dream to play something like this,” he said. “I consider this my masterwork.”

The program itself generated controversy with Nixon supporters labeling it a “smear,” and Nixon critics saying it was too sympathetic to the fallen leader. But Smith won critical praise for capturing the physical gestures, mannerisms and what he considered the Greek tragedy of the only U.S. president forced to resign in disgrace.

Newsweek called Smith’s portrayal “a towering performance” and said: “This docudrama is a one-man show, and perhaps the most incandescent ever to ignite the tube.”

And Newsday said Smith “is such a good Nixon that his despair and sorrow at his predicament become simply overwhelming.”

“The Final Days” greatly enhanced Smith’s reputation.

“Playing Nixon gave me tremendous recognition,” Smith told United Press International a year after the docudrama aired. “I’d long been known in the business, but it pulled everything together. Finally people could put the name Lane Smith with my face.”

In 1991, he landed regular roles in two short-lived television series, as cable television mogul R.J. Rappaport in “Good Sports” starring Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal, and as suitor for star Teri Garr’s mother in “Good and Evil.”

In short order, he also played a hockey coach in the highly popular “The Mighty Ducks,” a politician in Eddie Murphy’s “The Distinguished Gentleman” and a lawyer in “My Cousin Vinny,” all released in 1992.

And then along came Superman.

Smith had been a regular on other series, including the title character’s mentor in the 1986 medical drama “Kay O’Brien” and a corrupt industrialist aiding menacing aliens in the 1985 sci-fi series “V.” But “Lois and Clark,” which starred Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher and ran on ABC from 1993 to 1997, would be his most enduring employer.

In the updated take on the caped crusader from Krypton, White’s favorite expression changed from “Great Caesar’s ghost!” to “Great shades of Elvis!” and the editor spewed Elvis trivia.

Smith was born in Memphis, Tenn., on April 29, 1936, and grew up wanting to act.

He studied drama for two years at what is now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh before dropping out for a two-year Army hitch. He later moved to New York to study at the Actors Studio.

Smith made his off-Broadway debut in 1959 and acted in several plays on and off Broadway.

Notwithstanding the Nixon role, his real career break came in the late 1960s when he played Randle Patrick McMurphy for 650 off-Broadway performances of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Better roles followed, and he went on to play characters as diverse as artist Modigliani, writer Jack Kerouac and dictator Adolf Hitler.

Smith earned a Drama Desk Award for his role in David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Glengarry Glen Ross” in 1984.

The actor made his motion picture debut in 1970 in Norman Mailer’s “Maidstone,” and in 1978, he moved to Los Angeles to concentrate on film and television work.

His first motion picture starring role came in 1988 when he played the warden in “Prison” with Viggo Mortensen.

Smith is survived by his wife of four years, Debbie, and his son from a previous marriage, Robertson.