Peter Morgan still can’t believe that he turned down George Clooney. Five years ago Morgan was an obscure screenwriter known mostly for his scripts for British TV. But then he wrote The Queen, which won him an Oscar nomination in 2006, and cowrote the screenplay of The Last King of Scotland, another critical favorite, which brought Forest Whitaker the best actor Oscar the same year, and soon George Clooney was on the phone asking to direct the film version of Frost/Nixon, Morgan’s play about British talk-show host David Frost’s landmark 1977 interviews with disgraced former president Richard Nixon. Morgan recalls with clarity the day Clooney called to express his interest in the project.
“He said things like, ‘We are really going to kick ass with this!’” says Morgan, an earnest, self-deprecating Englishman who’s flung himself across a sofa at London’s Covent Garden Hotel to demonstrate how he lay on the floor with the phone positioned between him and his wife, Lila, so that she could listen in. “Not going with him was complete f---ing agony because he suggested doing some script work at his house by Lake Como—at which point my wife was just shaking her head like this,” he adds, mimicking her enthusiastic nod. “I expect I will spend the rest of my life making amends to him—and to my wife—and to everybody about my decision. Now I will never have him ringing me again, asking to do my work.”
In the end Morgan went with Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) because he knew him personally, had wanted to collaborate with him for some time and thought Howard’s sensibility would serve the movie well. “I just feel that if I’m English and writing about an American president, I have got to have someone on my side who can help me out when I’m lapsing into lazy or obvious European skepticism,” says the London-born Morgan, the son of a Polish-Catholic mother who fled the Soviets and a German-Jewish father who fled the Nazis. “I was nervous about America, and Ron puts the ‘A’ into America.”
Frost/Nixon debuted in 2006 at London’s Donmar Warehouse before transferring to the West End and then to Broadway, where it opened to rave reviews and scooped up a Tony nomination for best play. Frank Langella, who won a Tony for his performance, reprises his role as Nixon in the film. Both Frost and Nixon had long fascinated Morgan, who had thought about the play for nearly a decade before sitting down to write it. His interest in Frost was piqued by a TV biography he saw about the talk-show host, who, after losing his prized interview program in 1972, offered to pay the former president $600,000, plus a share of any profits, for the face-to-face interviews. They were to be the first since Nixon had resigned, and Frost hoped they’d revive his career in America. It was a risky move: The big networks wouldn’t make a deal without dictating the terms, and there were no guarantees that Nixon would admit to any wrongdoing. “Any normal person would have rolled over and surrendered,” Morgan says, “but not Frost, who has extraordinary tenacity and perseverance. Can you imagine paying a criminal that amount of money for an interview?” By the end of Frost’s 28 hours of interviews—only six of which were broadcast on mostly independent stations—Nixon had tacitly acknowledged his role in the Watergate scandal, giving the American people the catharsis they’d been craving.