Footlight prepares for a showdown between Richard Nixon and David Frost 

The Rumble in the TV Jungle

Some people achieve greatness. Others get to kiss the hem of great men. I saw an awful lot of hem-kissing when I shot a series of videos with Sir David Frost in the late '90s in Scotland. Everybody wanted to be seen with him, get their picture taken beside him, drink a toast to him.

I gave him a 9 a.m. call time for our shoot. He said that "only when the Sultan of Brunei calls me do I get out of bed before 9." Unless I had an extra $20,000 in my pocket, he wasn't going to turn up until noon. He knew the power and value of his name.

Frost hasn't always had such pull. In the '60s he was best known in Britain as a satirist. He presented That Was the Week That Was, an all-singing, all-joking progenitor to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. By the '70s he was the nation's favorite talk show host, a paean of hard-hitting chat. But he was a mere blip on the American cultural radar until 1977, when he grilled Richard Nixon on U.S. TV about Watergate.

To the former president, Frost was a milquetoast who posed no threat. Nixon had been pardoned by President Ford, and he'd never apologized for the mistakes he'd made. But Frost was ready to bite. He realized what an on-air confession could do for his career. So he gnawed at Nixon's insecurities, teasing out an admission of fallibility if not one of guilt. It was Frost's finest hour, the moment when he achieved greatness, now further lionized on stage and screen by writer Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland).

Director Robbie Thomas was only 12 when Nixon died in 1994. Half his cast hadn't even been born when the original interviews were broadcast. But this play is more than just a historical document. "It's still very relevant today," says Thomas, who sees parallels between Nixon's follies and the "gray areas" of George W. Bush's policies. "Nobody really knows if Bush abused the power he had as president." That uncertainty sparked a renewed interest in Nixon's attempted cover-up of the Watergate burglary.

"Peter Morgan released his play at the exact right moment," Thomas says. "We're questioning our leaders and the government. Up till Nixon people didn't do that. He was untouchable, almost a demigod."

To play this fallen idol, Thomas chose Mark Landis. The College of Charleston theater professor was not cast for his Nixon impression. "A lot of people did great impersonations, but that was not what I wanted. Mark has created his own character. He's taken certain mannerisms from Nixon, he's got it physically in the body, and he's got some of the same speech patterns. But it's really the essence he's captured." The same was said of Frank Langella in the movie version of Frost/Nixon — he didn't look or sound like the ex-prez, but he was so emotionally authentic that it didn't matter.

For the Footlights production, another CofC theater prof has been cast as Nixon's foil: Jamie Smithson. Thomas recalls watching Smithson pull off the part of Richard III in the college's Shakespeare Project. "There he was, this tall, gangly guy who does mainly comedic work, giving an incredible performance." When Landis and Smithson auditioned together for Frost/Nixon, Thomas knew "this was a bout for the ages."

The two leads are backed up by E. Karl Bunch, Boogie Dabney, Rob Maniscalco, Randy Risher, Christian Self, Noah Smith, Palmer Stowe, and Emily and Josh Wilhoit. Since this is a character-led play, Richard Heffner's sets will be minimal so as not to detract from the performances.

There may be a slight distraction on Halloween night. The theater will offer discounted tickets to audience members who come dressed in '70s garb or as their favorite politician. (At last, a chance to dust off those Sarah Palin glasses!)

Frost/Nixon is a neatly written look at the power of the media and the price of underestimating an opponent. Thomas concludes, "There are bits of theater magic. The narrator can talk to the audience one second then walk into a scene and take us with him."

As for Sir David, he filmed his scenes with me like the media veteran he was, then left the set two hours early to party with some local dignitaries. He'd fought his big battle 20 years earlier, slain the dragon, reaped the rewards. And he has the late, ungrateful Richard Nixon to thank for it all.

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