Late last year I wrote about the news that Harry Shearer, veteran comedian and voice actor best known for his multitude of parts on The Simpsons, had contracted with the Sky Arts channel in the UK to do a special, Nixon’s The One, partly based on the 1971-73 White House recordings, which Shearer, with occasional guidance from Watergate historian Stanley Kutler, has been delving into with each new release of tapes.
This month comes the news that the special will air at 9 pm British time next Thursday, April 26. In this video interview on Sky News’s site, Shearer talks about the roots of his interest in the President, which is much the same explanation he has given before: as the product of a liberal-leaning Los Angeles family who later worked in 1970s counterculture comedy groups, Shearer has been obsessed, in both a horrified and fascinated way, with Richard Nixon almost since his birth, so that researching, writing, and finally performing in a show devoted to RN was the natural result.
Then he sits back as a clip from the special airs. When I first posted about the show I had seen stills from it online, and noted that the actor playing Nixon White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman had entirely the wrong hairdo; Dr. Henry Kissinger was portrayed as having a physical build akin to John Wayne’s (which, I suspect, would not exactly displease the former Secretary of State); and the makeup used on Shearer made him look more like the late Roberts Blossom in Home Alone than the President.
The clip now answers the question: how does Harry Shearer sound in his new role? Unhappily, although he is frequently a skilled mimic – I remember him once doing a pitch-perfect imitation of G. Gordon Liddy on some radio show – his abilities somewhat fail him when it comes to the Nixonian tones. Although his vocal phrasing and pace are quite similar to what is heard on the White House tapes, when it comes to catching the precise timbre of RN’s voice, he falls short of the late David Frye or even Dan Aykroyd. What Shearer’s Nixon sounds like, to be honest, is Wayland Smithers (the obsequious assistant Shearer voices on The Simpsons, for those of you who gave away your sets after SCTV went off the air) doing an imitation of a rather relaxed Jim Backus.
So it remains to be seen if Shearer can compensate for this failing in his overall performance. But it seems worth mentioning that the three attractive English roses sitting next to him appeared far more interested in getting him to say “Release the hounds!” than in eliciting his Nixon impression.
Shearer has a lengthier opportunity to talk about his show in this interview at the site of Britain’s Broadcast magazine where he reiterates something he has said elsewhere: that Nixon’s The One is a psychological study of RN which is not specifically political. He says this is the reason why he decided to try selling the program in Britain rather than try to do it on a US cable channel. But he doesn’t particularly go into detail, so it will be next week before viewers find out whether his show is closer to Oliver Stone’s Nixon or Robert Altman’s little-seen Secret Honor than to a really balanced portrayal of Nixon on the small screen.
Robert Nedelkoff is a writer for the Richard Nixon Foundation.