PBS and Woody Allen's Spoof of Nixon: The Untold Story
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Mon, 8 Dec 97 13:32:05 -0800
Subject: PBS and Woody Allen's Spoof of Nixon: The Untold Story
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From: NY Times:
December 4, 1997
Woody Allen's Spoof of Nixon: The Untold Story
By BARBARA STEWART
NEW YORK -- For a couple of decades now, there have been intermittent
rumors about it, and sometimes a mention in a book or magazine. Fifteen
years ago, one quarterly devoted several pages to it, but around the New
York PBS station WNET, where the 25-minute film was produced on the cheap
in 1971, there had not been a sighting for ages.
The film may be the least publicly viewed work by Woody Allen, a raucous
sendup of the Nixon administration, replete with slapstick that recalls
"Bananas," juxtapositions of fictional characters and historical clips
reminiscent of "Zelig," and chatter about sexual foibles in line with the
dialogue in just about every one of Allen's movies.
The film, "Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story," was completed just
in time to be shown as Richard Nixon, then hugely popular, was about to kick
off his triumphant re-election campaign.
Perhaps for this reason, it never broadcast.
WNET president William Baker said he had been hearing about the film since
he took his job 10 years ago. Tantalized, he asked about it around the
office from time to time.
A few weeks ago, he found a cassette of the movie on his desk, courtesy of
Mary Ann Donahue, a station executive who had worked on the film. Now he
would like to broadcast it, he said, although securing approval from Allen
and others involved in the project would be necessary.
Allen, who undertook the film without a commission from WNET and offered it
to the station without charge, declined to be interviewed about "Wallinger,"
but his longtime producer, Charles Joffe, said he doubted Allen would give
Still, Baker said he was fascinated by the movie. "I love it, and I'm going
to find a way to show it," he said, adding that he hoped to find a way to
work with Allen.
In the film, Allen plays Nixon's top aide, the scrawny, lascivious Dr.
Harvey Wallinger, who got his Ph.D. in needlepoint at Harvard and set a
record by graduating 96th in a class of 95.
"Nothing gets done at the White House without Harvey Wallinger," the
narrator intones portentously, newsreel style.
Louise Lasser and Diane Keaton make appearances, as does the Nixon
look-alike Richard M. Dixon. Their scenes are interspersed with news clips
of politicians bumbling: Sen. Hubert Humphrey in academic robes stumbling
on a college stage, Vice President Spiro Agnew swatting his doubles partner
with a serve during a tennis game, and Nixon delivering some of his less
effective public statements.
The movie was made when Allen had a few weeks of free time after making
"Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (but Were Afraid to Ask)."
"He had a hiatus," said Jack Kuney, the producer of "Wallinger." "He wrote
it in 10 days." WNET had put the film on its schedule for February 1972.
The film was made at Columbia University, Kuney recalled. "It really wasn't
a very good movie," he said. "He didn't have time to work on it."
Ms. Donahue, the director of programming at WNET, who was an assistant
producer on the film, said, "We knew the networks wouldn't come near us."
She added, "We just assumed the only place you could do that was on public
But even for public television, a lot of the film was too risque, and
apparently too politically risky. Officials at the station and at the
Public Broadcasting Service particularly objected to one gibe at Nixon's
wife, Pat, said James Day, a Brooklyn College professor who was the
president of WNET at the time. In the film, Wallinger, looking directly at
the camera, says: "Pat Nixon occasionally calls me, you know, and says, you
know: 'Dick's not home. Come on over. He's on a European trip or something.'
But I try to discourage that kind of thing, because I just don't think it's
Eric Lax, a biographer of Allen, said the filmmaker thought "Wallinger"
innocuous and funny in parts and not over the line for public television.
But the managers at PBS disagreed. They sent messages to their member
stations saying that while PBS would not distribute the film, the stations
were free to broadcast it. But they cautioned that there might be legal
issues involved that could jeopardize the stations' licenses. These
included equal-time regulations for other presidential candidates, as well
for people like Mrs. Nixon who were portrayed critically in the film.
Others, however, looked at this reasoning as a smoke screen.
"They were afraid to kill it because they'd look chicken," said Day. "But
they didn't want to upset the politicians and get their money cut." At the
time, public television was especially nervous about losing its government
support, which Nixon had vowed to cut.
In the end, a satire called "Come to Florida Before It's Gone," starring
the comic Stanley Myron Handelman ran instead of "Wallinger." And Allen
moved on from Wallinger without looking back, said Lax. "That's Woody's
genius," he said. "He always has more ideas."
Still, said Ms. Donahue: "It's definitely classic Woody Allen. And it's
definitely time-capsule stuff."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company
© 1997 Peter Langston