Sure, sure, actors are known for playing people they are not, but still, it was eerie to see long-time Democrat Denis Berkfeldt become Republican Richard Nixon.
He talked like the disgraced president. He looked like the disgraced president. He rekindled all those memories of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation.
Berkfeldt is starring in “Frost/Nixon,” playing at Vintage Theatre in Aurora through Feb. 9.
His role of a political staffer occurred from 1997 to 2015. He worked for state Senate Minority Leader Mike Feeley of Lakewood, then Senate Majority Leader Bill Thiebaut of Pueblo and finally for Denver City Auditor Dennis Gallagher.
He used his real name in those roles — Denis Berckefeldt. An agent suggested he drop some letters to make the name more pronounceable and more readable when it came to acting.
The agent was right.
How did Berkfeldt so convincingly play Nixon?
“I watched a lot of videos and then internalized everything,” he said. “In my mind, I saw myself as Nixon, I believed I was Nixon — sort of like doing a Republican mind meld.”
“Frost/Nixon,” which premiered in 2006 in England, is based on a series of televised interviews that the former president granted British broadcaster David Frost in 1977. It was written by Peter Morgan, now better known for writing the TV series “The Crown.”
Some of Berkfelt’s political buddies came to see him.
“The Johnson-Nixon era was central to my life,” lobbyist Dick Brown said.
“I joined the Army as President Johnson was phasing out his presidency, was at boot camp when Nixon beat Humphrey, took my commission the month after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, returned to the United States in 1972 following the Easter Offensive and the Battle of An Loc and the beginning of Nixon’s Operation Linebacker to bomb North Vietnam,” Brown said. “In October 1973, the Nixon’s impeachment began and he resigned in August 1974. In 1977, the Frost interviews occurred.
“Looking back now, I realize what an extraordinary set of monumental events occurred in that decade.”
As for Berkfeldt, his father was career Navy, so everywhere was home. When his father retired in 1966 the family moved to Pueblo, where Berkfeldt’s mother was from. Berkfeldt attended college in Pueblo, where legendary lobbyist Wally Stealey was his political science professor.
“He taught me everything I know about politics,” Berkfeldt said of Stealey.
Berkfeldt graduated from college in 1969, then went to California to pursue an acting career — he’s a member of the Actors’ Equity Association. When he returned to Colorado in 1990, he did talk radio, first on KCSJ in Pueblo then subsequently simulcast on stations in Fort Collins, Boulder and Greeley. He eventually landed at KOA doing overnights before going to work at the state Capitol.
There also was that brief congressional run, in 2002. From John Sanko of the Rocky Mountain News:
Denis Berckefeldt has been a king, a cop, a bad guy and a preacher — all of them more than once.
But a congressman? Not yet.
The 55-year-old state Senate employee and moonlighting actor is getting a taste of what being a Washington, D.C., politician might be like as he takes on a new role that has nothing to do with the movies or stage.
Berckefeldt is a candidate for Congress in Colorado’s sprawling 3rd Congressional District.
It turns out that Berkfeldt, who lived in the 1st Congressional District based in Denver, was out of the room when Stealey nominated him to take on the challenge of unseating Republican Scott McInnis of Glenwood Springs. Likewise that year, Republicans nominated state Sen. Ken Chlouber, who did live in the 3rd, in Leadville, to challenge Democrat Diana DeGette in the 1st.
Both nominations were considered place-holders.
Like so many Americans, Berkfeldt followed Watergate, the resignation and the Frost interviews. He used his personal memories and interviews with Nixon on YouTube, particularly in his later years, to refine his performance.
“The trick is not to do an impersonation, but to gather enough of the ticks and quirks, the way the voice works, to get the essence of Nixon without being a caricature,” Berkfeldt said.
And he accomplished that mightly.
So did the cast. When Nixon’s young aide, played by actor Eric Carlson, abruptly ends the Frost interview when it is going badly, I had flashbacks from my years of covering the state Legislature and political campaigns.
Of course, Hollywood turned the Frost/Nixon play into a movie. I saw it in the theater when it debuted in 2008, but although it went on to be nominated for five Academy Awards, I scarcely remember the film.
I think that’s because I was so enamored with the 1999 film “Dick,” billed as a comic reimagining of Watergate.
Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams (winner of a Golden Globe on Jan. 5) nailed the roles of two ditzy teenagers. One lives in the Watergate with her mother, and the girls sneak out one night to mail a letter to idol Bobby Sherman. The girls tape the door in the parking garage so they can get back in, police find it and the Watergate investigation begins.
Berkfeldt said he remembers Watergate and the resignation well.
So do I. I had a 1972 Nixon campaign sticker “Now more than ever” on my bedroom wall, along with a poem I had cut out from some magazine: “You’re like my favorite pair of blue jeans/I love you/my mother hates you/but you fit so well.” Of course, I had no boyfriend and my bell bottoms never fit that great.
I was a huge Nixon fan and defended him against The Washington Post onslaught. Damn liberal media. Then came the resignation — and my respect for journalists.
“I let down my friends,” the former president told Frost three years later.
“I let down the country. I let down our system of government, and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but now think it too corrupt .... I let the American people down, and I have to carry that burden with me the rest of my life.”
But first Nixon would insist that because he was the president, he had done nothing wrong.
In other words, a play written about events in the 1970s is perfect for our current times.
“Frost/Nixon” runs through Feb. 9 at the Vintage Theater. Tickets can be purchased at VintageTheater.com or by calling 303-856-7830.