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Frost, famous for Nixon interview, dies

Associated Press
Former President Richard M. Nixon appears with broadcaster David Frost in California in this 1977 file photo.

David Frost, the veteran broadcaster who famously drew a grudging post-Watergate apology out of former President Richard Nixon, died Saturday aboard a cruise ship sailing from England to the Mediterranean. He was 74.

His death, from an apparent heart attack, was confirmed in a statement his family released to the BBC.

Known for his laid-back but probing style of interviewing, Frost gained access to an astonishing array of world figures during a five-decade career. His subjects included seven U.S. presidents and eight British prime ministers, and his A-list included Prince Charles, Nelson Mandela, Billy Graham, Muhammad Ali, Orson Welles, Truman Capote, the Beatles, Henry Kissinger and Vladimir Putin.

Ferociously prepared but charming to the point of servility, he had a knack for getting his interviewees to relax and open up.

“He could be – and certainly was with me – a good friend and a fearsome interviewer,” tweeted David Cameron, the British prime minister.

The coup of Frost’s career came in 1977, when he persuaded Nixon to sit with him (for a fee and a share of the broadcast profits) in a series of interviews over several weeks. Nearly 29 hours of taped conversation – Nixon’s first interview after resigning in disgrace in 1974 – was distilled into four 90-minute programs.

At one point, Nixon said of his Watergate machinations “that when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

After Frost had established a rapport with Nixon, he cannily appealed to Nixon’s sense of history and remorse, telling the leader that unless he acknowledged his abuses, “you’re going to be haunted for the rest of your life.”

Finally, Nixon conceded: “I let the American people down.”

The Nixon interviews formed the basis of an acclaimed play and movie whose title – “Frost/Nixon” (not Nixon/Frost) – established that Frost had become as much of a celebrity as the VIPs he interviewed.

In a golden age of television journalism that produced the likes of Mike Wallace and Barbara Walters, Frost was also a media executive and panel-game host who got his start in TV as a satirist. He was also a fully transatlantic figure in the mold of Alistair Cooke – as familiar in the United States as in his native Britain.

David Paradine Frost was born on April 7, 1939, to Wilfred John Paradine Frost, a Methodist minister, and Mona Aldrich Frost in Tenterden, in the southern English county of Kent. The family later moved to a shoe-manufacturing town in the English Midlands.

Soon after college, while appearing in nightclubs doing satire, he was recruited to appear in a new television show that combined skits, interviews and music and that would tackle such controversial subjects as religion and political skulduggery. At 23, Frost, highly ambitious and in his element, co-wrote and hosted the program “That Was the Week that Was (TW3).”

Christopher Booker, a colleague and college friend, wrote that Frost demonstrated an “extraordinary, intuitive feel for television itself. In the studio, he was instantly, nervelessly at home, as if the very presence of cameras and light gave him an extra charge of confidence and energy.”

But his naked ambition turned some off. Booker voiced a common view that “David’s most obvious quality was he simply wanted to be amazingly famous for being David Frost.”

He went on to host other shows bearing his name. One, “The Frost Report,” introduced English audiences to comic actor John Cleese and laid the foundation for “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”

From 1969 until 1979, he taped five shows a week in New York for the Westinghouse Broadcasting Co. – guests ranged from Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to Groucho Marx – while appearing in shows for his own company in Britain, London Weekend Television. At one point, he was logging 200,000 air miles a year.

Frost co-founded a major production company and brought early-morning television to Britain in the early 1980s.

He hosted a weekly chat show for the BBC, “Breakfast With Frost,” that ran from 1993 until 2005. The next year, he started a weekly current-affairs program for the Al-Jazeera English channel, boldly named “Frost All Over the World.”

He married twice: in 1981 to Lynne Frederick, former wife of actor Peter Sellers, and in 1983 to Carina Fitzalan-Howard, who survives him.

He is also survived by his sons Miles, Wilfred and George.