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David Frost: The Art of the Interview

Published: 4/7/2014
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David Frost (AP Photo / Gerald Penny)

During a broadcast career that lasted more than 50 years, British journalist David Frost interviewed the biggest names in politics, entertainment, sports and pop culture. But Frost, who would have celebrated his 75th birthday today, is perhaps known best in the U.S. for his series of interviews with former President Richard Nixon.

Nixon, who resigned in 1973 rather than face almost certain impeachment, had not publicly addressed Watergate before the interviews were televised in 1977. Under questioning from Frost about the legality of his actions, Nixon famously responded, "When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."

Nixon also used the interviews to apologize, saying, "I let down my friends. I let down the country. I let the American people down. And I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life." Some people were amazed by this mea culpa. Others, including Nixon biographer Jonathan Aitken, maintain the words were carefully crafted in advance by Nixon's team.

Frost's career ended with his sudden death from a heart attack in August 2013 at age 74. As the London Evening Standard noted in its obituary of Frost, he was "the most illustrious TV inquisitor of his generation."

The New York Times wrote that Frost "knew how to make his guests 'make news' … either through a sequence of incisive question or carefully placed silences."

Frost first gained national fame in Britain in the early 1960s as host of That Was the Week that Was, a satirical news program that some have called a prequel to The Daily Show. The program, which ran for 18 months, counted John Cleese of Monty Python fame among its team of writers.

From that time on, Frost appeared on television continuously, his catchphrase, "Hello, good evening and welcome," becoming part of the broader lexicon.

He seemed affable, as when he hosted the game show Through the Keyhole, which showed videos of celebrities' homes and challenged guests to guess who owned the property. But as British Labor leader John Smith once told him, Frost had a "way of asking beguiling questions with potentially lethal consequences."

Among Frost's best interviews, according to Chris Harvey of Britain's Telegraph newspaper, was his 1969 sit-down with John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

"Frost asked the couple what else they wanted to do," Harvey writes. "'Make peace, and sell it,' replied Lennon. 'Is it too simple a truth?' asked Frost of the couple's one-word doctrine. 'What is too simple about me not killing you now?' responded Lennon. Frost kept his nerve. 'Well I think that's a good idea, on the whole,' he replied."

Harvey also cites Frost's 1974 interview with Muhammad Ali just before his historic fight with George Foreman as a career highpoint.

"Frost conducted the interview in the center of a boxing ring, where he questioned Ali on his Muslim beliefs, and why he thought he could beat a fighter who had defeated so many of his contemporaries. Ali showed prescient knowledge about one of Frost's future encounters: 'Listen David, when I meet this man, if you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait till I whip Foreman's behind.' "

Frost interviewed a host of other celebrities, including Orson Welles, Tennessee Williams, Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Anthony Hopkins and Warren Beatty.

Frost proved so engaging, Frost collaborator Lloyd Grossman told the BBC that few people knew they were "dealing with the Leviathan of broadcasting and just thought, here is a wonderful man, generous, enthusiastic and always excited. He was in love with television."

In addition to Nixon, Frost interviewed six U.S. presidents and eight British prime ministers. He was the last person to interview the Shah of Iran before he was deposed. He sat down with Mikhail Gorbachev, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Golda Meir, Yasser Arafat, Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, among other political leaders.

After Frost's death, BBC journalist Andrew Marr said Frost "changed the whole style of political interviewing, what could be said, how it was done, the whole approach. And I think today there are two types of political interviewer – those who've learnt from David Frost, and second-rate interviewers."

In 1977, Frost approached Nixon's staff about a series of interviews. They seemed to think that Frost would be a soft interviewer, someone who could be easily outwitted. Nixon was also in need of cash and Frost agreed to pay him $600,000 – much of it from his own pocket – and 20 percent of the syndication fees for the interview. Many mainstream news organizations denounced the move as "checkbook journalism." But after a month of interviews was edited down into four 90-minute-long programs, they may have regretted that assessment.

Writer Peter Morgan later turned the pre-interview negotiations and interviews into a play and a film, Frost/Nixon – important to note that is a work of fiction that invented scenes that never happened, such as a late-night phone conversation between a drunken Nixon and a sober Frost.

Frost told CNN in a 2009 interview that Nixon could be extremely awkward, and recalled how the former president had once tried to make casual conversation by asking Frost about his sex life, in reference to his previous evening's activities.

"It was amazing to discover how ... hopeless he was at small talk," Frost said. "I mean, here was this incredible professional politician, a great pro. And he'd never learnt small talk."

While the Nixon interviews may be Frost's most famous, in a 2012 interview with the Guardian, Frost said he was most proud of his interview with George H.W. Bush following his 1989 inauguration.

"A man I greatly respect, the first President Bush – well, everybody had said that he never relaxed on television and when we did the first interview with him up at Kennebunkport, a little village in Maine … Although we'd never met before, within 10 or 15 minutes he was talking just so frankly about his family and the daughter he lost through leukemia," Frost said. "He was direct and everything that he is in real life, but he'd never been seen that way on television."

Last month, more than 2,000 people, including Prince Charles, honored Frost in a memorial service at Westminster Abbey.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

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