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Reliving Nixon's 'Final Days' : ABC-TV docudrama, based on Woodward/Bernstein book, details the resignation of a President

June 04, 1989|JUDITH MICHAELSON

He swallowed his words saying, "We have done some things wrong in this Administration and the top man always takes the responsibility. . . ."

He fought back tears talking about his father, who owned the "poorest lemon ranch in California," then sold it before they struck oil and became a grocer. "But he was a great man because he did his job. . . ."

And when he mentioned his mother, whom he said no one would ever write a book about, his voice fell to a whisper. "Well, I guess all of you would say this about your mother"--he paused--"my mother was a saint. "

Remember?

It was from Richard Nixon's last speech as President on Friday Aug., 9, 1974, coming back to TV in the form of docudrama. And these were the final days in the shooting of "The Final Days"--a three-hour movie for ABC based on the 1976 book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein--with actor Lane Smith as Nixon. As the fourth in a series of AT&T Presents dramas, "Final Days" airs next season.

In the Gold Room at Pasadena Civic Auditorium late last winter--the high-ceilinged ballroom bore the closest resemblance the producers could find to the East Room of the White House--there was a palpable hush among the cast and 200 extras as Smith portrayed Nixon.

Behind the Nixon character a pace and off to his left stood actress Susan Brown, looking oh-so-much like the real Pat Nixon with her prim hairdo and pink-and-white gingham dress just like the one the First Lady wore that final day. As Mrs. Nixon, the actress also wore a stoic face reddened by the effort to stay in control. The characters of the two Nixon daughters and sons-in-law completed the picture.

Now 15 years later--and much to the disapproval of Nixon family loyalists--here they all are again--Dick and Pat, Watergate and the lawyers, the courts and the tapes. Facing certain impeachment on charges of obstruction of justice and abuse of power, the 37th President had virtually no choice but to resign. The irony was that it was not the actual break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in 1972 that forced the first presidential resignation in American history, but the cover-up afterward.

As the last chapter of the Watergate scandal, written by the two Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate story, "Final Days" was the stuff of high drama. Like the book, the script deals with the behind-the-scenes saga of the last 15 months in the Nixon White House. The mood of fatalism is summed up early on in the docudrama when Nixon lawyer Leonard Garment, played by "St. Elsewhere's" Ed Flanders, says: "We've got time bombs all over. Some have already exploded, the rest lie ticking. . . ."

"I didn't want to do the obvious," said executive producer Stu Samuels, who had been ABC's vice president for movies and miniseries when "The Day After," the landmark drama about nuclear war, and "Something About Amelia," the first TV movie to deal with incest, were made. "I didn't want to bash Nixon."

Without prompting, Samuels shrugged. "Because it's too easy. The issue for me was: How do you provide insight into the mistake? Clearly Nixon had made a mistake. How did that happen?"

"Look at the man's accomplishments: Nixon remains one of the most outstanding Presidents in contemporary history with regard to his achievements. He did get us out of Vietnam. He did reopen a dialogue with China. This is not a stupid man, a man given to casual error. . . .

"There's a wonderful moment in the movie," Samuels said, "when Nixon is in his E.O.B. (Executive Office Building) office, when he says to (Press Secretary Ron) Ziegler, 'Maybe we were talking about a cover-up.' It's as though he were waking from a dream, at least from an unconscious state, and asking himself, 'Is this what we were doing?' Our own assessment is that this President acted as though he were on a kind of auto pilot."

The script was written by Hugh Whitemore, an Englishman who wrote "Concealed Enemies," PBS' Emmy-winning "American Playhouse" miniseries about the Alger Hiss case (in which then-Rep. Nixon had a featured role), as well as the plays "Pack of Lies" and "Breaking the Code." Both Samuels and ABC felt that a non-American would be more dispassionate.

Whitemore anchored his script around Nixon lawyer J. Fred Buzhardt. "It's pure instinct, but dramatically it seems to me things work better with much less-known people," the writer said.

So, while the relatively unfamiliar Smith and Brown respectively play Nixon and Mrs. Nixon, Richard Kiley ("A Year in the Life," "Man of La Mancha") is Buzhardt.

Asked what attracted him to the role of Buzhardt, one the least known of the Watergate players, Kiley snapped to attention: "You just answered your own question. He was one of the mystery men, very much behind the scenes, and yet he played a key role. He was the one who really found the incriminating (tape) passages. . . ."

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