Obituary: David Frost / British journalist conducted famed interviews with Nixon

April 7, 1939 - Aug. 31, 2013

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David Frost, the British broadcaster whose interviews of historic figures like Henry Kissinger, John Lennon and, most famously, Richard Nixon often made history in their own right, died 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 Nixon, the former president, broadcast in 1977, three years after Nixon was driven from office by the Watergate scandal, resigning in the face of certain impeachment.

Mr. Frost not only persuaded 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 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 email.

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, actor George Clooney and tennis star Martina Navratilova. A new season of Mr. Frost's program, "The Frost Interview," began in July with 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 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."

Mr. Frost 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 Nixon was broadcast around the world. At one point, Mr. Frost asked about 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."

On the last day, Mr. Frost pressed 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."

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 was awarded a knighthood in 1993.

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