In 1977 television host David Frost gambled on a very expensive project involving former president Richard Nixon. Frost and his backers would pay Nixon $600,000 to participate in a series of interviews that would then be broadcast on television. The stakes were high on both sides. Frost’s interview program had recently been cancelled, and the networks refused to distribute the interviews, leaving Frost to syndicate the program himself. Nixon had not spoken in public for two years following his disgraceful presidential resignation and saw this exclusive interview as an opportunity to clear his name and set the record on Watergate straight. For Frost, the bet paid off, as the initial episode became the most watched television interview of a politician in history, a record that still stands today. For Nixon, the results were more equivocal. Given the opportunity to speak his side of the Watergate story, the ex-president left the impression with most viewers that he’d obstructed justice, one of the charges for which he was to have been impeached.
Although Frost/Nixon may best be known in the form of Ron Howard’s 2008 feature film, writer Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon began as theater, premiering at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2006. Frank Langella, who played Nixon in both the play and the film, went on to sweep the Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and Tony Awards in 2007 for his performance. On Thursday, July 22, Frost/Nixon the play will get its first Santa Barbara production, with Jim Sirianni directing and Ed Giron in the role of Nixon.
“I came into the project with little to no sympathy for Nixon,” said Giron recently. “But as I read the material and listened extensively to the famous Oval Office tapes, I began to feel for him. His experience reflects this awful power that the media has to create an irreversible impression of someone. … It made me think about the future and the way that television is being replaced by the Web, that’s perhaps even more oriented toward the sound bite than television.”
Frost/Nixon is at Center Stage Theater from July 22 through August 8. For tickets and information, call 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org.