On Aug. 8, 1974 – exactly 40 years ago Friday – Richard Nixon made history by becoming the first (and so far only) president to resign from office.
We couldn’t mark the occasion by interviewing the real Nixon (he’s been dead since 1994) so we did the next best thing: Talk to actor Harry Shearer, the Simpsons and Spinal Tap alum who plays the 37th president in Nixon’s the One, a comedy series based on Nixon’s secretly recorded conversations in the Oval Office.
As you might expect from an actor who underwent four hours of makeup to step into Nixon’s famous features, the series is the culmination of Shearer’s decades-long fascination with the president.
“The comic value of Nixon was evident from a very young age,” Shearer told PEOPLE. “Growing up in southern California, he was an omnipresent political force hovering over all of us.”
As an radio comedian in the late ’60s, Shearer had “plenty of opportunities” to hone his Nixon material. He recalls sitting in front of the television entranced by the “rogue’s gallery” of the Watergate hearings – not just the fraternity types that made up the lower levels of the Nixon administration, but the seedy hangers-on who carried out the dirty tricks.
The events gave the future Spinal Tap bassist his first taste of his Nixon character, whom he would roll out at various phases throughout his career.
“Nixon’s one of the great comic figures of the 20th century,” he said. “Here’s a man who spends 85 percent of the time trying to suppress his emotional reactions, and 15 percent of the time blurting them out.”
For Nixon’s the One, Shearer enlisted the help of historian Stanley Kutler, whose lawsuit forced the National Archives to release the tapes from Nixon’s secret White House recording system.
Together, Shearer and Kutler wrote the script for the series, though perhaps the word “assembled” would be more accurate; every line of dialogue was taken verbatim from the transcripts of Nixon’s meetings. What interested them most weren’t the moments where Nixon plotted his crimes – those had been well-covered by history – but the smaller, weirder moments where the commander-in-chief would launch off on a bizarre conversational discursions, his listeners forced to politely nod along.
“At the beginning of his presidency, he had a small scandal with the dairy industry and payoffs,” Shearer recalled. But when Nixon brought the heads of the dairy lobby into the Oval Office, he didn’t say a word about the rumors: “He went off for 10 minutes about the benefits of using milk as a sleep aid.”
Nixon’s feelings on warm milk are included in first episode of the series, which originally aired on Britain’s Sky Arts. Though Shearer has previously said that the show would not have been able to be made in America, he hopes the show’s U.S. airing in the fall will correct some of the stereotypes around our most notorious president.
“What’s been lost in all the mythologizing of Nixon is that he was significantly to the left of Obama,” Shearer explained, “He started the EPA and OSHA, he passed the Clean Air Act. He even gave a speech calling for a guaranteed annual income.”
Shearer insisted he’s not trying to defend Nixon, or exploit his failings. Instead, he’s trying to offer audiences a fuller picture of the man (while still making them laugh). “He was very smart, but he was so twisted and warped by his early experiences – it’s fascinating.”