WASHINGTON – Sir 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.”
Once 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” (“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 trans-Atlantic 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.
Frost credited his high-school English teacher, a Mr. Cooksey, with igniting “my interest in words, and the use of words,” and for sowing the seeds of a reporter’s skepticism. During the Suez Crisis in 1956, “he urged us to read two newspapers rather than one,” Frost wrote. At Wellingborough Grammar School, he also hammed it up in a series of school plays.
Those two threads — public affairs and public performance — entwined for him as an undergraduate at Cambridge, where he became editor of the university magazine Granta, and a member of the Footlights Dramatic Club, a famous incubator for satirists and actors. Frost found himself comfortably in a company of young, bright and rebellious students ready to reject the norms of deference and class status that defined their parents’ generation.
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.”
Booker also noted — as recounted in Humphrey Carpenter’s chronicle of the 1960s British satirical movement, “A Great, Silly Grin” — that Frost had suddenly, at a very young age, “entered a magic new world — expensive restaurants, taxis, newspaper interviews — every day was like a royal progress through a wash of compliments.”
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.”
And then there was the voice: nasal, strained and, in 1960s Britain, oddly classless and increasingly pan-Atlantic.
Frost took “TW3″ to the United States in the early ’60s, but American critics saw it as a defanged version of the original. In Britain, he collaborated with the creator of “TW3″ on a new show, but it didn’t deliver the same punch as “TW3,” which ran from 1962 to 1964 before being canceled.
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.”
Also in the late 1960s, he began a live, current-affairs program called “The Frost Programme,” in which he established himself as an interviewer of figures described as “the great, the notorious, and the weird.”
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.”
Later in life, Frost was regarded as the sort of established figure that he ridiculed early in his career — hobnobbing with political and show-biz celebrities, throwing parties from his home in London’s fashionable Chelsea district — but he was still widely respected as a journalist rather than just a flashy jet-setter, said Alastair Campbell, who was director of communication and strategy for then-Prime Minister Tony Blair.
“He was a great networker and his parties were famous,” Campbell told The Washington Post. But his subjects “felt if you were going to do an interview, it would be a challenge but also an opportunity. He was always fair, asked tough questions but was fair.”
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 sons Miles, Wilfred and George.
In 1993, Frost, the recipient of many professional and personal awards, was knighted.