TV relies on more than skillful makeup in portraying LBJ
Lyndon Johnson PBS, tomorrow, 9-10:30 p.m. Stars Laurence Luckinbill in one-man show based on the James Prideaux stage play of the same name, from the book ``Lyndon,'' by Merle Miller. ``When I grew up, there was no way for a cotton-pickin' kid from Texas to become president,'' says Laurence Luckinbill as Lyndon B. Johnson.
``Cotton-pickin''' is no idle phrase. LBJ is speaking quite literally of the days when he worked in the fields as a boy and chose to shine shoes for politicians so he could keep in touch with events.
That feeling of long roots in a hard-working past - of a ``cornpone, clod-hopping'' fellow, as LBJ himself describes the image some people had of him - is one of the many arresting features in this impressive one-man show.
In recent years, several presidents have been ``done'' by actors in one-man shows - James Whitmore's crackling Truman, for instance. It takes real virtuosity, of course, to create that initial shock of recognition that makes an audience think ``Yeah! That's him, all right.'' To this end, Luckinbill has been given long ear lobes and other touches that make him look remarkably like the familiar, bespectacled LBJ.
But the real test for such a performance is to make it more than a nightclub impression, to lead us past that reaction and into a story worth seeing in its own right. And Laurence Luckinbill does this with potent artistry. He gives the potentially narrow form a full-dimensioned dramatic impact - forceful, varied, and with an overall emotional structure that builds to a moving and semi-tragic conclusion.
Although the fierce pride and defensiveness of the scrambling Texas boy never leave the LBJ image, in Luckinbill's hands it takes on a marvelously varied set of reactions as he sits in the Oval Office in 1968 and describes his political and personal life - from before the days he was climbing through barbed wire to ask farmers for their votes, through his run for the House, to his decision not to seek re-election in the 1968 presidential election. This is a hard-drinking, blunt-talking LBJ we see, an unabashed lover of power who manipulates people, turns to four-letter words in his many moments of passion, and takes the moral shortcuts so familiar to politics.
Yet it is definitely a fan's image, one of a heroic figure whose vividly conveyed human flaws serve to make him seem vulnerably real. Politics is not the point here. It's the spirit of the man behind the political figure that Luckinbill's probing performance seeks out and captures.
There is also humor - small comic touches like LBJ's periodic picking up of phones to ``test'' the switchboard operators, followed by a wink at the audience. But these are less successful than the moments of deeper or stronger feeling, and their variety is one of the things that makes the 90 minutes seem short. These include LBJ's memories of the eyes of the downtrodden Mexican kids he used to teach; his awe at seeing the Capitol dome when he first arrived in Washington, D.C.; his delicious alligator smile when he has a chance to tell off Bobby Kennedy; the haunted look when he describes John F. Kennedy's assassination and recounts its grisly details. And there is his famous political arm-twisting style - folksy, impassioned, irresistible.
But what gets LBJ most impassioned is politics, and here Luckinbill captures LBJ's ferocious zest for the race. One of the strongest moments is his joyous ruefulness as he recalls losing his first Senate race. He actually yells the lines but seems to be rejoicing in a lesson learned.
And what gets him most disturbed is Vietnam, whose terrible consequences gradually change him. In the early stages he has a tone of confidence - and perhaps a little smugness - in saying he can finish ``what Jack [JFK] started'' in Vietnam. By 1968, however, Luckinbill's LBJ is a tortured figure crying out in anguish over the loss of life in the war. The show ends on a less somber note, but it's this tragic evolution that has given it real impact.