Stacy Keach feels 'deeply blessed' with Ahmanson return Friday after a mild stroke
Like many a dramatic yarn, the scary personal episode that actor Stacy Keach starred in as himself last week -- with his own stroke-inducing blocked carotid artery as the antagonist -- came with foreshadowing.
Keach is scheduled to return to the stage Friday night at the Ahmanson Theatre, 10 days after he was hospitalized with what's been described as a "very mild stroke."
"I can't tell you how grateful I am and relieved. I feel deeply blessed," Keach, 67, said Tuesday, his gravelly voice firm and clear over the phone from his home in Calabasas. He'll have missed 11 performances of "Frost/Nixon," but his return is expedited by the stent that doctors inserted into the right side of his neck to ensure that the balky carotid does its job of carrying blood and oxygen to the brain.
Those are necessities for normal walking and talking -- let alone doing eight shows a week exploring the haunted thicket of personality that was Richard Milhous Nixon. Peter Morgan's play is based on the 1977 duel of wits in a series of interviews between the disgraced former president, who was seeking a platform to relaunch himself as an elder statesman, and television host David Frost, who was seeking a ratings triumph.
Keach, who has been touring as Nixon since Sept. 25, said he noticed "a little tingling in my right arm" the night before closing in Cincinnati, the stop before the Ahmanson. The tingling was back on opening night in L.A. "I quickly tried to focus and refocus" despite the sensation, Keach said. Near the front of the house, his wife, Malgosia, who is also an actor and had seen him play the part several times, turned to their 18-year-old daughter, Karolina, "and said, `Daddy's not right tonight; something's off.' "
Nevertheless, Keach got up early the next morning for an appearance on KABC radio with morning host Doug McIntyre, a good friend of the actor since McIntyre, who is also a screenwriter, produced a syndicated late-1990s revival of "Mike Hammer." Playing that hard-boiled private eye on TV in the 1980s had won Keach a mass audience after years as a respected stage actor who'd won Obie awards playing Lyndon B. Johnson in "MacBird" in the mid-1960s, and for an early 1970s turn as Hamlet.
"He asked me some questions, and I realized I wasn't making sense answering them," Keach said. McIntyre says Keach "did struggle to complete a few sentences," but he figured that was because the actor had gotten up early after a late night on stage. McIntyre had been at the opening and thought Keach's performance was flawless.
By then, Keach said, "I knew something wasn't happening properly with my motor response," and he went to his doctor and got a shot of vitamin B12. He did five weekend performances and hosted a cast get-together at his home Monday, March 16, a day off. On Tuesday morning he emerged from the shower with his right arm stinging and burning. His wife was there; they summoned paramedics and after a battery of tests at Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks, then USC Medical Center, "the doctor said, `Guess what, pal, you've had a series of minor strokes,' " caused by calcium deposits in the carotid artery.
Keach says he's gone cold turkey on cigarettes -- "This is the end of an era" -- and will take his medicines, watch his diet and get more exercise. He could recall having missed only three previous performances because of back trouble, in a career that stretches to the early 1960s: one while starring in "King Lear" in a 2006 production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and two during his Tony-nominated 1969 Broadway turn as Buffalo Bill in Arthur Kopit's "Indians."
He has no qualms about stepping back into Nixon's shoes, no plans even to rehearse a scene or two. "It's like riding a bicycle. Having done the show over 150 times, I'm looking forward to getting back onstage."
Keach plans to ease his way back in with three L.A. performances, skipping the Saturday and Sunday matinees and doing only the weekend evening shows. His understudy, Bob Ari, will play Nixon in the matinees and slide back into his regular role as Frost's journalistic advisor, Bob Zelnick, when Keach is performing. The Ahmanson is offering refunds or exchanges for people holding tickets for the matinees. Keach said he'll avoid the two-a-day rigors for a while as the tour continues through May 10, with stops in Tempe, Ariz., San Antonio, Sacramento, Dallas and Seattle.
The only other adjustment, he says, may be walking in place instead of running in place in the scene in which Nixon tries to limber up before the crucial final interview about the Watergate scandal.
On June 16, Keach, who will turn 68 on June 2, is scheduled to open as Lear at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.
He said he has exchanged messages with Laura Odeh, the Cordelia whose dead weight he'll have to carry night after night at the tragic climax.
"`Dear Laura, do not gain weight.' She's very light, anyway."
-- Mike Boehm
Photo: Stacy Keach. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu / For the Los Angeles Times