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David Frost dies

September 1, 2013

David Frost, Interviewer Who Got Nixon to Apologize for Watergate, Dies at 74

By BRIAN STELTER of the New York Times

 

David Frost, the British broadcaster whose interviews of historic figures like Henry Kissinger, John Lennon and, most famously, Richard M. Nixon often made history in their own right, died on Saturday aboard the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth, where he was scheduled to give a speech. He was 74.

The cause was a heart attack, his family said.

Mr. Frost’s highly varied television career mirrored the growth of the medium, from the black-and-white TV of the 1960s to the cable news of today.

He knew how to make his guests “make news,” as the television industry saying goes, either through a sequence of incisive questions or carefully placed silences. He showcased both techniques during his penetrating series of interviews with President Nixon, broadcast in 1977, three years after Mr. Nixon was driven from office by the Watergate scandal, resigning in the face of certain impeachment.

Mr. Frost not only persuaded Mr. Nixon to end a self-imposed silence, he also extracted an apology from the former president to the American people.

The sessions, described as the most-watched political interviews in history, were recalled 30 years later in a play and a film, both named “Frost/Nixon.” In the film, Mr. Frost was portrayed by Michael Sheen and Mr. Nixon by Frank Langella.

Since 2006, Mr. Frost’s television home had been Al Jazeera English, one of the BBC’s main competitors overseas. Mr. Frost brought prestige to the news network, while it empowered him to conduct the kind of newsmaker interviews he most enjoyed.

“No matter who he was interviewing, he was committed to getting the very best out of the discussion, but always doing so by getting to know his guest, engaging with them and entering into a proper conversation,” Al Anstey, the managing director of Al Jazeera English, said by e-mail.

He was “always a true gentleman,” Mr. Anstey added, alluding to the charm that others said made Mr. Frost so successful in securing such a wide array of guests.

Among those guests in recent years were Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, the actor George Clooney and the tennis star Martina Navratilova. A new season of Mr. Frost’s program, “The Frost Interview,” began in July with the astronaut Buzz Aldrin. The season was to continue through mid-September.

One of his first interviews for Al Jazeera made headlines when his guest, Tony Blair, agreed with Mr. Frost’s assessment that the war in Iraq had, up until that point in 2006, “been pretty much of a disaster.” In a statement on Sunday, Mr. Blair said, “Being interviewed by him was always a pleasure, but also you knew that there would be multiple stories the next day arising from it.”

David Paradine Frost was born April 7, 1939, in Tenterden, England, to Mona and W. J. Paradine Frost. His father was a Methodist minister.

While a student, Mr. Frost edited both a student newspaper and a literary publication at Cambridge University, where he showed a knack for satire — something on which the BBC soon capitalized. In 1962, Mr. Frost became the host of “That Was the Week That Was,” a satirical look at the news on Saturday nights. While it lasted only two seasons in Britain, “TW3,” as it was known, was reborn briefly as a program on NBC, and it is remembered as a forerunner to “The Daily Show” and the “Weekend Update” segment on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”

After “TW3,” Mr. Frost was the host of a succession of programs, from entertainment specials (“David Frost’s Night Out in London”) to more intellectually stimulating talk shows. While most of these were televised in Britain, Mr. Frost crossed the Atlantic constantly; he once said he had lost count of the number of times he had flown on the Concorde.

He filled in for Johnny Carson twice in 1968, and was subsequently offered a syndicated talk show, which premiered on a patchwork of stations across the United States a year later. That series came to an end in 1972.

His most memorable work happened several years later, when his interview with Mr. Nixon was broadcast around the world. At one point Mr. Frost asked about Mr. Nixon’s abuses of presidential power, prompting this answer: “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

“Upon hearing that sentence, I could scarcely believe my ears,” Mr. Frost wrote in a 2007 book about the interview, published to coincide with the “Frost/Nixon” movie. Mr. Frost said his task then “was to keep him talking on this theme for as long as possible.”

By then, Mr. Frost and Mr. Nixon had already spoken on camera several times. And they continued to speak: the interviews, for which Mr. Nixon was paid $600,000 and a share of the profit for the broadcasts, were taped over four weeks for about two hours at a time and eventually totaled nearly 29 hours.

On the last day, Mr. Frost pressed Mr. Nixon to acknowledge the mistakes of the Watergate period. “Unless you say it, you’re going to be haunted for the rest of your life,” Mr. Frost said.

“That was totally ad-lib,” Mr. Frost recalled. “In fact, I threw my clipboard down just to indicate that it was not prepared in any way.” He added: “I just knew at that moment that Richard Nixon was more vulnerable than he’d ever be in his life. And I knew I had to get it right.”

Mr. Nixon apologized for putting “the American people through two years of needless agony,” adding, “I let the American people down and I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life.”

Mr. Frost, who was awarded a knighthood in 1993, had recently moved to a home close to Oxford, said Richard Brock, his executive producer at Al Jazeera. He also had a home in London.

Survivors include his second wife, Carina, and their three sons. His first wife, Lynne Frederick, a British actress, was the widow of Peter Sellers; they divorced in 1982. Mr. Frost was also once engaged to the American actress and singer Diahann Carroll.

In interviews, whenever Mr. Frost was asked about the highlight of his career, he cited the Nixon interview.

But Mr. Frost interviewed other presidents as well, including George H. W. Bush, whom he later praised as wise and determined.

“The Nixon interviews were among the great broadcast moments, but there were many other brilliant interviews,” Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said in a statement on Sunday morning.

Barney Jones, a longtime colleague of Mr. Frost at the BBC, told the news organization that Mr. Frost had an interview with Mr. Cameron scheduled for September.

Mr. Jones marveled at Mr. Frost’s contacts, recounting a day when “he took me into my little office, scrabbled around in his contacts book, and five minutes later he was talking to George Bush. I couldn’t believe it.”

 

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