On Movies: Stage to screen, Nixon's the one for Langella
'I really did think it was going to be seven weeks, in and out," says Frank Langella, recalling his decision, in early 2006, to star as Richard M. Nixon in Peter Morgan's play, Frost/Nixon. Set for a short run at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London, the play - about the series of interviews conducted by talk show host David Frost in 1977 with the only U.S. president ever to resign from office - won hugely favorable reviews.
Suddenly, the New Jersey-born Langella, and Michael Sheen, who played Frost, found themselves moving to a bigger house in London's West End. In April 2007, the intense tete-a-tete drama opened on Broadway, where Langella went on to nab the Tony Award for best leading actor in a play.
And then Ron Howard climbed aboard and decided to make a movie out of it. Langella and Sheen reprise their roles, joined by Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell. The film opens Friday at the Ritz East and the Showcase at the Ritz Center/NJ.
"It's taken actually a little over 21/2 years of my life," says Langella, on the phone from New York the other day.
"So you never know. It's another good lesson in choosing something because you really want to do it, versus because you think it might have commercial potential. . . . Very often you choose projects that you think are going to do great things, and they fizzle and die."
Langella, 70, now finds himself among the contenders for a best-actor Oscar nomination for his performance as the 38th president, forced to step down in the wake of the Watergate scandals.
"He is an epic tragic figure," says the actor, who remembers watching the president make his historic announcement on TV, in August 1974.
"I was sitting on the floor of a little house I was renting in Williamstown, Massachusetts," he remembers. "I was doing a play at the Williamstown Theatre Company, and rehearsal was canceled, or put back for a few hours, so we could all go to my house and watch the resignation speech."
For playwright Morgan, Langella was the only man for the job of portraying the tarnished former commander-in-chief.
"We agreed that he had to be an American, not a Brit, and they came back with half a dozen names, and the director and I immediately felt that Frank should go to the top of the list," recalls Morgan, in a separate interview. "Frank has the physical stature, because Nixon was a tall man, but more than that Frank has this extraordinary stage experience. He is, quite simply, a master. . . .
"And we were thrilled that he said yes. But don't forget, he only agreed to come and do the seven-week run. No one, none of us, could have predicted any of this!"