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Checkers - Off-Broadway

Anthony LaPaglia and Kathryn Erbe star in Douglas McGrath's drama.

Anthony LaPaglia on the Excitement and Fear of Playing Richard Nixon in Checkers

Anthony LaPaglia on the Excitement and Fear of Playing Richard Nixon in Checkers
Anthony LaPaglia in 'Checkers'
I’m not trying to imitate Nixon on stage. I look for two or three physical traits he has, and I use those to introduce myself to the character.

About the author:
When it comes to tough guy roles, Anthony LaPaglia is in his comfort zone, with a 1998 Tony Award for his performance as dock worker Eddie Carbone in A View from the Bridge and a seven-season run as FBI agent Jack Malone in TV’s Without a Trace. The Australian-born actor might seem like a surprising choice to play Richard Nixon in Checkers, the new historical drama by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Douglas McGrath, but LaPaglia brings the same sense of character development that distinguished his comic performances in Lend Me a Tenor and TV’s Frasier (as Daphne’s boorish brother Simon Moon). Below, LaPaglia explains how he channeled Nixon circa 1952, when the vice presidential candidate’s political career was on the line for alleged fund-raising improprieties.

When I first read Checkers, I thought it was the greatest challenge and risk I’ve taken in many years. It’s such a densely packed piece of material about someone who is still very much alive in the public consciousness—Richard Nixon is such a specific icon in American culture. I thought about it, and I felt I hadn’t been challenged as an actor, or scared of trying something new, in a long time. Ultimately, I talked to [writer] Doug McGrath and [director] Terry Kinney and I thought, “Well, if you want to scare the pants off of yourself, this is the way to do it.” So, I committed.

Checkers presents a side of Nixon I hadn’t seen before. There’s so much stuff about him out there, and most of it has a very negative connotation. I like the fact that this is another angle on him. Growing up in Australia, I was absolutely aware of Nixon, but I only knew what was being said vis-à-vis the press. Of course, Watergate is the standout. I remember, quite vividly, Watergate being such a big deal, and everyone mocking the iconic “I am not a crook” speech. Those are the images I had of Nixon, but having done a lot of research, my opinion about him changed, quite dramatically in many respects.

I’m not trying to imitate Nixon on stage. I look for two or three physical traits he has, and I use those to introduce myself to the character. The cadence of his voice is number one, because it’s very distinctive. Number two is that he was very uncomfortable in his own body, and he stood in a question mark shape, or an “S” shape. He had a slouch that was very distinctive. Finally, he had hands that were incredibly delicate; he had very subtle hand gestures when he spoke. He was quite the accomplished pianist.

After I’ve begun tackling the physical characteristics, I have to get the emotional life of the character. If the audience connects with that, after the initial feeling of “he doesn’t quite look like Richard Nixon,” they start to believe. The key is to find the essence of the person and apply that truth in every scene and, hopefully, that will come across the way you want it to.

You feel an obligation to get it right when you’re playing a real person who is so well known. That’s the biggest challenge. In Checkers, the sheer volume of dialogue was the first thing I tried to conquer before I could even begin to “play” him. The play runs for about two hours, and I think I’m off stage for about three minutes. It’s an enormous amount to carry. While the play is political, it’s predominantly a love story between Richard and Patricia, his wife, and the early indications of his paranoia. I’m sure I’ll still be finding stuff until the end of the run. It’s that kind of play.

The “Checkers” speech is the one place I really focus on trying to portray as accurately as possible. Of course, that was 30 minutes of television being condensed into six or seven minutes on stage. It’s still a long stretch, and there are certain nuances he had that I try to introduce. There’s a part where he stumbles over a few words. It’s a small detail, but it’s important. Also the way he sat, and the way he addressed the camera. The speech was the first time somebody understood and used the power of television. In some ways, it was the beginning of the loss of privacy for public figures.

The speech was a big gamble on Nixon’s part. It wasn’t just the Democrats who didn’t like him; his own party didn’t like him. The Eisenhower team put him through hell just to get the vice presidential nomination. Four years later, before the second term, they put him through the same thing again. They just didn’t like the guy, even though they kind of needed him. He was prepared to do the stuff that Eisenhower wasn’t prepared to do.

The actors in this company are fantastic. All of them. They are the most supportive, professional, fun and dedicated cast. There’s an intimacy to off-Broadway theater that I haven’t experienced for a long time. I really love it. My bank balance doesn’t love it, but I do. I live in Los Angeles predominantly now, and it’s tough to come to New York and commit to a play. But how many times in my life am I going to get the chance to play Richard Nixon? None. This is the only chance I’ll ever get. So, it really wasn’t that much of a decision. It ends up costing me money to do this, but I’m paying for the privilege because it’s worth it.

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