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Stacy Keach returns gratefully to 'Frost/Nixon' after suffering a stroke

March 28, 2009 | 12:45 pm

Keach During Friday's curtain call of "Frost/Nixon", Stacy Keach acknowledged the resounding cheers and applause with a bow, then quieted the audience with his hands, for a brief, heartfelt speech of thanksgiving to his family, friends, fans, physicians and the cast and crew.

"I'm truly blessed," he concluded. "And just -- stay away from cigarettes."

Keach returned to the Ahmanson Theatre stage for three performances this weekend after suffering a series of mild strokes.

Standing outside his dressing room door after Friday's show -- his first performance after his 10-day, stroke-induced layoff -- a lively sounding Keach said that playwright Peter Morgan's "Dr. Lundgren," a name mentioned in passing, on Saturday will become his own "Dr. Larsen," in tribute to the physician at USC Medical Center who treated him for the blockage in his carotid artery that caused his problems. The doctor is expected in the audience to see how his celebrity patient is doing.

Keach, until now a longtime smoker, said that at first it seemed strange getting back into the saddle for his 150th-plus touring performance as the ex-president in the drama concerning Nixon's series of 1977 mano-a-mano television interviews with talk show host David Frost.

"I kind of felt like, 'Where am I?' " said the 67-year-old actor, whose voice and movements were free and clear throughout the play. "I had to get acclimated." By the time he and Alan Cox were having at it in the interview sequences as a desperate, financially leveraged Frost and a comeback-hungry Nixon, Keach said, everything felt back to normal.

Coxkeach

Cox said his own performance was energized by the extra drive he felt coming from his counterpart.  "He came out like his life depended on it. He attacked it. It was absolutely amazing."

Playwrights tend to frown on actors not delivering their lines precisely as written.

But one suspects the British writer Morgan would give Keach an authorly dispensation for the little Lundgren-becomes-Larsen improvisation the actor says he has in store for tonight's performance, out of gratitude to a doctor who made it possible for him to return to the play.

It comes in a key scene that's one of the show's imaginative flights beyond the historical record: a tipsy Nixon phones Frost in his hotel suite in Beverly Hills the night before they're scheduled for their final showdown over Watergate. Frost is expecting a call from his girlfriend down in the hotel restaurant, asking what he'd like her to bring for dinner. "I'll have a cheeseburger," he barks as soon as he picks up the telephone.

"Mmm. Sounds good. I used to love cheeseburgers," the deposed president says. "But Dr. Lundgren made me give them up," with orders to eat unappetizing cottage cheese and pineapple instead. There follows a simmering speech that comes to a full boil, revealing the seething class resentments that Morgan posits as the engine of Nixon's rise and fall.

On doctors' advice, Keach is skipping the matinees today and Sunday, but will perform the evening shows both nights, winding up the play's Ahmanson run before moving on to five more cities through mid-May. Keach, who gets to sit through the long interview segments of "Frost/Nixon," views it as a good shakedown for his mid-June opening in Washington, D.C., in one of the stage's most notoriously demanding roles: King Lear.

For the remaining matinees at the Ahmanson, Keach's understudy, Bob Ari, again will switch from his regular role of Bob Zelnick, one of Frost's coaches in journalistic strategy. Last week, Ari, who was also Frank Langella's understudy on Broadway, revealed a markedly  different take on Nixon than Keach's: gruffer, deeper-voiced, more raw and less able to disguise the insecurities and disappointments that nag at him. For matinee ticket holders who'd rather see the star than the understudy, the Ahmanson is offering refunds or exchanges for the evening performances.

-- Mike Boehm

Top photo: Stacy Keach as Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon." Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

Bottom photo: Alan Cox, left, and Stacy Keach in "Frost/Nixon." Credit: Carol Rosegg / Center Theatre Group

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