By John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist
Truth was just strange as fiction when longtime Democratic politico Denis Berkfeldt took on – and conquered – the role of dishonored Republican President Richard Nixon in Vintage Theatre’s “Frost/Nixon” in January.
From 1997 to 2015, Berkfeldt was the public voice behind some of the biggest names in local politics. He worked for state Senate Minority Leader Mike Feeley of Lakewood, Senate Majority Leader Bill Thiebaut of Pueblo and Denver City Auditor Dennis Gallagher. His name has appeared in the daily papers hundreds of times speaking on public-policy issues as varied as police 911 response times, the redevelopment of the aging National Western Complex and even Denver’s overly steep pot tax.
Berkfeldt is also a lifelong stage and screen actor whose credits span the 1979 Clint Eastwood film “Escape from Alcatraz” to the Arvada Center’s monumental 2000 staging of “To Kill Mockingbird” (he played the strutting, drunk widower Bob Ewell) to last year’s award-winning Irish musical “Once” at Miners Alley Playhouse (pictured at right with John Hauser, by Sarah Roshan).
Still, it was eerie watching Berkfeldt so convincingly portray one of the most singular characters in American political history. That’s the same word Lynn Bartels, the longtime dean of Colorado political reporters, used to describe his performance: Eerie.
“He talked like the disgraced president. He looked like the disgraced president. He rekindled all those memories of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation,” Bartels wrote for the Colorado Springs Gazette.
Peter Morgan’s "Frost/Nixon" recounts the sensational series of paid-for-TV interviews Nixon gave to British talk-show host David Frost in 1977. By then, Frost had become a lowbrow laughing-stock. Nixon had just resigned over Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. Frost’s future career would depend on his extracting an apology from Nixon, while the cagier Nixon was bent on using the novice to redeem himself in the nation's eyes.
But in the end, the underdog delivered the knockout punch, and it sealed Nixon’s doomed legacy. (Unfortunately, the play swings on a completely fabricated late-night drunk-dial that, in truth, Nixon never made to Frost. But the scene was a goldmine for Berkfeldt.)
So how did the quintessential Democrat play Nixon so convincingly? Part talent, part DNA. First off: Berkfeldt’s physical resemblance is astonishing.
“I watched a lot of videos and then internalized everything,” Berkfeldt told Bartels in a January interview. “In my mind, I saw myself as Nixon. I believed I was Nixon — sort of like doing a Republican mind-meld.” He said 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 tics and quirks, the way the voice works, to get the essence of Nixon without being a caricature,” Berkfeldt said.
In real life, Denis Berckefeldt was a Navy kid, so he moved around a lot. (Believe it or not, the shortened “Berkfeldt” is a stage name.) His father retired in 1966 and moved the family to Pueblo, where his mother was from. Berkfeldt studied at Kansas Wesleyan University and in Pueblo, and after graduating in 1969, he spent the next 21 years pursuing an acting career in California. When he returned to Colorado in 1990, he worked in talk radio before going to work at the state Capitol. In 2002, he ran a halfhearted campaign to unseat Republican Scott McInnis in the state senate. In 2015, he was hired by a local lobbying firm.
He served on the Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs, which is responsible for approving Public Art and in 2013 developed “Imagine 2020,” Denver’s first public cultural plan since 1989. (I served on that task force as well, and I can tell you no one in 2013 came anywhere close to correctly imagining what 2020 was going to end up looking like.)
What seared Berkfeldt’s portrayal of Nixon into the theatre annals came when he finally told Frost the truth: “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.”
Can you imagine a time when a busted elected official possessed the courage and ethical capacity to rise above his own moral turpitude and apologize to the nation for his abuse of power – a necessary first step in helping the nation to finally start to close its festering, open wounds?
Then again ... Nixon did continue to insist to his dying day that because he was the president, he had done nothing legally wrong.
“In other words,” Bartels wrote, “a play written about events in the 1970s was perfect for our current times.”
Denis Berkfeldt and Scott Gaines in Vintage Theatre's 'Frost/Nixon.' RDG Photography.
What the critics said:
"Denis Berkfeldt captures Nixon's wiggly jowls, gravelly voice and obstinate mannerisms and establishes the character as the immovable force in the face of Frost’s persistence.” – Alex Miller, OnStage Colorado
“Denis Berkfeldt steals the show. The mannerisms of Nixon are all there, from the jowl-shaking to the finger-wagging to the perfectly mimicked speech to the wiping of sweat from the brow and upper lip. Being an expert at all the memorable behavioral patterns of Tricky Dicky, Berkfeldt shines.” Marlowe’s Musings