Between playing bassist Derek Smalls in the immortal metal spoof This is Spinal Tap and voicing dozens of characters on The Simpsons, Harry Shearer has been a key performer in two of the most oft-quoted entertainment franchises in living memory. For his latest project, however, Shearer’s the one doing the quoting. He’s re-enacting, verbatim, moments out of the presidency of the disgraced Richard M. Nixon, recasting the tragic president as a comic figure. The series, created in collaboration with Nixon scholar Stanley Kutler, is called Nixon’s the One. It already ran in the UK on Sky Arts earlier this year, and will soon be webcast weekly on YouTube’s My Damn Channel, starting on October 21st.
The scripts are taken from Nixon’s actual White House tapes—those notorious recordings that figured so heavily in the Watergate investigations that left his presidency and his legacy in utter ruins—and shot in a fly-on-the wall style that makes viewing feel like eavesdropping. A teaser was released about a week ago, in which Henry Kissinger is played by British actor Henry Goodman:
To play the former president, Shearer underwent some serious transformation—prosthetics, makeup, wig, the whole megillah, as this photo sequence attests.
Photos courtesy of Hat Trick Productions Ltd.
Terrific work, but this can’t go unsaid—is it maybe a little much? Shearer’s voice isn’t his only great gift as a performer, he has a marvelously expressive face, and it seems a shame to obscure ALL of it with latex appliqués. It strikes me that he could have made a better-than-credible Nixon just with the addition of a nose and some jowls. One possible reason for the full-face prosthetics could have been to DE-age the actor—this surprised the shit out of me when I looked it up, but Shearer is 70 years of age. Nixon, in the time period being recreated, was around 60.
About a month ago, to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, Shearer released a similar verbatim re-creation of the unsettlingly awkward moments leading up to Nixon’s resignation speech. I’ve included the actual historic footage for comparison. The way Nixon tries to casually goof around with the news crew makes him seem more like your embarrassing perma-bachelor uncle trying to flirt with a waitress than the leader of the free world about to abandon his career in the face of nearly unanimous public contempt. Shearer’s take on that massively uncomfortable frisson works quite well as cringe comedy.
Previously on Dangerous Minds
White House memo suggests Nixon ‘neutralize’ Johnny Cash, 1970
Wasted Richard Nixon talks, slurs his words to Ronald Reagan on the telephone, 1973
Reefer man: Did Louis Armstrong turn Richard Nixon into his drug mule?
Let Nixon play Nixon: Listen to tricky dick tickle the ivories, on a composition by Richard Nixon