David Frost, the British interviewer and television personality who died suddenly Saturday on board the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth at the age of 74, had no real American equivalent -- he was something of a cross between Barbara Walters and Dick Cavett, perhaps, with a bit of Charlie Rose or Dick Clark thrown in. Properly speaking, of course -- for a couple of decades, anyway, back in the 1960s and '70s -- he was his American equivalent, a well-known media figure here and the man who came as close as anyone ever would to getting Richard Nixon to explain himself.
Though he was only occasionally a comedian himself, Frost, then still in his 20s, was a key figure in what is described as the British "satire boom" of the early 1960s, which also gave birth to "Beyond the Fringe" (ground zero for Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett), which in turn gave birth to Monty Python. (He was a member of the Cambridge Footlights alongside Cook and John Cleese.)
Frost was quickly successful -- a self-producing, self-perpetuating brand. Most of the members of Monty Python wrote for him before going off on their own, together -- they call him "Frosty" in their recollections. Eric Idle, who had written for "The Frost Report" in the late '60s and also crafted "spontaneous and funny ad-libs" for Frost to deliver during interviews, parodied him on "Monty Python's Flying Circus" (as "Timmy Williams," turning a coffee date with an old friend into an opportunity for self-promotion) and, with no perceptible difference, as Frost himself, on a "Saturday Night Live" appearance parodying his Nixon interviews:
"Hello! Hello, good evening, and welcome -- a joyous welcome! Thank you, super, bless you, wonderful, terrific, great, marvelous, splendid, mmm-hmm, you're welcome, have a nice day, thank you, good evening, and welcome!"
He first became known as the host of the topical "That Was the Week That Was," a sort of sketch-comedy "Daily Show," and its short-lived American version, whose regular cast included Alan Alda and Buck Henry; Woody Allen, Gloria Steinem, Tom Lehrer, Calvin Trillin and Mike Nichols and Elaine May were among its contributors. It premiered here (after a November 1963 pilot) in January 1964, which is to say that Frost arrived alongside the Beatles and James Bond at a time when England, briefly, was again the center of the world in the American mind. He was only a year older than John Lennon -- he would repeatedly interview and present Beatles and ex-Beatles throughout his career -- yet it was a crucial year. Never counter-cultural, he was current without ever being hip; but he never tried to pretend otherwise.
Although Idle's parody pictured Frost as a celebrant of his own celebrity, one doesn't feel with him (as can often be the case in his job) that it's the host who has granted the interview, with the guest lucky to be allowed in his presence. Nor was he (as can also be the related case) a sycophant. He was, at his best, a well-prepared good listener (a clipboard was a frequent tool-cum-prop), engaged, serious without being his severe. His laughter was hearty when it happened and never forced.
Watching him in clips from throughout his career, one is struck most by his hands, which keep busy, whether he is listening or talking, and independently of what he is saying -- clasped together, tucked up under his chin, rolling a pen, half-balled and beating time to his words, fingers of one hand playing with the other, picking at each other, folding up under his chin. And he was a leaner: leaning back for the relaxed moments, leaning in for the intense ones.
The dramatic tenor of his 1977 series of interviews with Nixon, only a few years after that president's resignation, was substantial enough to become a play -- Peter Morgan's "Frost/Nixon," which became Ron Howard's 2008 Oscar-nominated film. Frost, who financed the interviews (Nixon was paid $600,000), is direct but not unsympathetic; he presses the president without dismissing him; he is clever without being clever. He has landed a big fish, and though he does not plan to cook him, he will not let him easily off the hook.
"Just coming to the sheer substance [of Watergate], would you go further than 'mistakes'?" he asks. "The word -- it seems not enough for people to understand."
"What would you express?" Nixon replies.
"My goodness, that's -- I think that there are three things, since you asked, I would like to hear you say, I think the American people would like to see you say. One is there was probably more than mistakes, there was wrongdoing, whether it was a crime or not, yes, it may have been a crime too. Secondly, 'I did' -- and I'm saying this without questioning the motives -- 'I did abuse the power I had as president'... And thirdly, 'I put the American people through two years of needless agony and I apologize for that.' ... And I know how difficult it is for anyone and most of all you, but people need to hear it, and I think unless you say it you're going to be haunted for the rest of your life."
This strikes me as extraordinary -- honest and human, and productive without being manipulative. And Nixon (though, being Nixon, always keeping something back) did apologize.
That interview was Frost's last major American moment. Before that, he had been best known here as the host of the syndicated "The David Frost Show" (1969-72). But back in Great Britain, he remained the ever-present Sir David, hosting (sometimes for decades) a variety of overlapping nighttime and daytime interview and panel shows, including "Through the Keyhole," "Frost on Sunday," "Breakfast with Frost" and, finally, for Al Jazeera English, "Frost Over the World."