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A Circuitous Route to a Book Deal

By Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts
Wednesday, January 24, 2007

First the book, and then the stage play/movie deal . . . isn't that how it's supposed to work? Not for Chevy Chase author Jim Reston, whose unlikely path to a new book deal started when a play based on historic events -- a play in which Reston is a central character -- became a hit on the London stage.

"Frost/Nixon" is a dramatization of the stunning 1977 TV interviews Richard Nixon gave to British talk show host David Frost -- including his apology for Watergate -- and a behind-the-scenes look at how the epic program came together. Reston, then a college instructor in his mid-30s, was hired as Frost's researcher. After the tapings, he wrote a narrative of his experience but never published it: "Frost was going to do his own book, and it seemed like he was the one who should." Two years ago, screenwriter Peter Morgan (who just got an Oscar nod for "The Queen") asked Reston for help on a play about the interviews. Reston sent him the memoir.

"He would say, if he was truly honest, that manuscript was truly pivotal," Reston told us. Morgan's play opened in August, to raves for stage vet Frank Langella as the ex-prez and Michael Sheen (Tony Blair in "The Queen") as Frost. Reston didn't get a script credit -- instead, Morgan turned him into the drama's narrator and its sort-of hero, whose research produced the surprise questions that jolted Nixon out of his practiced defense.

Now the play's headed to Broadway (opening April 22) and a movie treatment by Ron Howard. And just weeks ago, Harmony Books bought Reston's dusty manuscript, "The Conviction of Richard Nixon," for publication later this year. But the author said he has no problem with his story going to stage first. "The actor that plays me is about 28, 6-2, very athletic, gorgeous," he said. "I'm sure [that's] what I looked like at that age."

Even Happier Than Usual To Offer His Opinion

There he is! Chris Matthews is headed for Las Vegas today to fulfill a lifetime dream: judging the Miss America pageant. "It's like running with the bulls in Pamplona," said the MSNBC host. "Who doesn't want to do it?"

As a kid, Matthews spent most summers in Ocean City, N.J. (just south of Atlantic City), where everyone talked about "the pageant" and stayed up late to see Bert Parks and the announcement of the winner. "It was a big deal," he told us. "The knockout blonde always came in second; the wholesome Midwestern girl came in first. I used to think they did that so the wholesome one would feel better about herself."

Matthews will don a tux and join five other celebrity judges: choreographer Debbie Allen, actress Delta Burke (Miss Florida 1974), photographer Nigel Barker (a "Next Top Model" judge), singer-pianist Michael Feinstein and Susan Powell, Miss America 1981. (Matthews's "Hardball" producer, Tammy Haddad, serves on the Miss America organization's board and was a judge in 2002.) Pageant officials originally planned to showcase the contestants in a "reality" TV series leading up to Monday's pageant, but opted for a historical retrospective and a behind-the-scenes special in the days before the live broadcast on cable's CMT.

So what does it take to be the next Miss America? "Charisma," said Matthews. "Freshness. And thoughtful." Being a knockout blonde probably won't hurt.

THIS JUST IN

"Grey's Anatomy" star Isaiah Washington, who alienated fellow actors and fans by using an anti-gay slur about co-star T.R. Knight, met with gay rights activists Monday and agreed to use his fame to educate people about name-calling and bullying. "He seemed very sincere in his interest in working with us in an ongoing basis," said Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. "We emphasized that this is not a one-shot deal, but an ongoing thing. He was very open to doing this." Translation: Washington gets to keep his day job.

HEY, ISN'T THAT . . . ?

Kathleen Turner, in jeans and a ponytail, getting an art appreciation lesson at the Phillips Collection yesterday morning. The actress-- exploring the city while starring in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" -- got a VIP tour from Director Jay Gates; loved the Daumiers, Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" and the tutorial on Rothko.

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