Hail to the Chief: Richard Thomas, Stacy Keach and More Discuss Their Presidential Portrayals On the Stage

By Stuart Miller
17 Feb 2014

Stacy Keach didn't actually play Lyndon Johnson — he played the title character in MacBird, a controversial amalgam of Johnson and Shakespeare's Macbeth, done while Johnson was still president. (To reach the presidency, the character murders the John Kennedy stand-in, a conspiracy theory that soon gained traction.) But Keach played MacBird as if he was Johnson, listening to hours of the president to "nail his accent and cadences" and then "putting on glasses, a false nose and plenty of padding."

The performance was almost too uncanny. As Keach recounts in his new memoir, "All in All: An Actor's Life On and Off the Stage," in addition to being hired to performed as LBJ on a comedy record, "several times I was invited by anti-war protesters to impersonate the president at their rallies, which might have been interesting but their rationale for having me there was 'then we can shoot you.' I guess they weren't really peaceniks underneath it all. As an actor, you're always looking for a chance to show your stuff and keep your face before an adoring public but in a country plagued by too much violence it was easy to turn those offers down."

Three decades later, Keach took on Richard Nixon in the national tour of Frost/Nixon. "I don't resemble Nixon in the least," Keach said, "but if the script is good enough — and this one was — then you just need to capture the vocal inflections and the man's essence."

Keach drew on his personal memories of the Nixon era as well as connections — he had known Nixon's agent, Swifty Lazar, who is a character in the play. Additionally, Keach had first-hand experience with David Frost's knack for getting people to reveal things: When Keach appeared on Frost's show in 1969, the host asked Barbara Eden if she'd like to do a play with Keach. When she said yes, Keach blurted out, "Only if I can show my belly button," in reference to the "I Dream of Jeannie" star's famous midriff.

"Reaaally," Frost replied with a sly grin. "Show us your belly button, Stacy."

And he did.