Obit

The Private David Frost

Friend and co-producer John Florescu remembers the late David Frost.

Let’s start with a Frost anecdote.

A year after I served as executive producer on a syndicated series, The Next President With David Frost—and while on the New York–Washington shuttle—Frost turned to me and said, “I want you to run my U.S. production company. So we have to talk money.” He tore a piece of paper in half. “You write down what you think you deserve. I will do the same.” I wrote $80,000; he wrote $100,000. “Too bad. I am the boss. You get $100,000.”

For two decades, I had the pleasure of running Sir David Frost’s production company, which produced almost all his interviews for American television. This privileged ride, which took me across a spectrum of media life on both sides of the Atlantic, not only provided me an inside look at one of the most skillful interviewers in the last 50 years but also an appreciation of how the industry—and its stars—had changed over the same period.

Aside from Nixon, David had so many startling TV moments one could barely keep them straight: The last interview with Robert Kennedy before he was shot. The post-fight interview with Mohammed Ali at the “Rumble in the Jungle.” A pugnacious confrontation with Idi Amin. On the other side of the coin, a round-the-hall debate with virtually all the world’s living Nobel laureates at the Kings Hall in Stockholm. He also wrote 17 books, mostly between flights.

I got to know Frost because my father had a bestselling book that landed him on the David Frost Show in the early 1970s. Now, years later, I just rang him in London, explained the connection, and told him I had an idea for a TV series. “Meet me for breakfast at the Dorchester Hotel next Thursday in London,” he said. Over the course of more than two decades, he became a kind of (much) older brother. Everything was game and, with a London-L.A. bridge, we spoke at any hour.

To be sure, David’s journalistic success, like his knighthood, didn’t arrive by chance. David was a prince of a man, acquitted with wit, charm, intelligence, creativity, and stamina. I saw the technique work its magic with seven U.S. presidents, seven British prime ministers including Lady Thatcher, as well as with Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Vladimir Putin, Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, and a series of leaders felled by assassins—Yitzhak Rabin and Benazir Bhutto to name a couple. I saw it in war zones in Bosnia, in the subterranean bunkers occupied by General Schwartzkopf during the first Gulf War, in the Oval office, the Kremlin, and at 10 Downing Street.

Only hours after the Gulf War was over, David and I were in Monte Carlo, and he offered this thought over dinner: “What if I speak to President Bush about doing a secret for-the-record interview on the war?” Anxious to get the president’s views while they were still fresh in his mind, he rang the president directly and in a matter of days, David was at Camp David recording, in effect, a diary for history, parts of which were released five years later. Snatching the president away from the Washington press corps at a particularly sensitive moment was a quintessential Frost move.

A man of great manners, deep loyalty, and a common touch, David loved parties. On his 60th birthday, a startling combination of U.K., U.S., and European figures gathered to fete him on the sprawling lawns of his country home southwest of London. Andrew Lloyd Weber produced his new 16-year-old ingénue to sing “Happy Birthday” à la Marilyn Monroe, at a medieval chapel across the meadow. Lord Owen, a former U.K. foreign minister, then took to the microphone. “I want to thank David for bringing the best and the brightest of Britain together.” He paused only long enough to let the guests ponder their own accomplishments. “David, you never forgot us when we were riding low, as I have and many of us here know well. You would always be there for lunch, a call.” Recently, he slipped up to Kennebunkport, Maine, from London just to check in on George Bush, his ailing friend.

It seemed he knew everybody and, when asked, never failed to deliver. Eager to push her charity for women’s fertility, the late Princess Diana asked David to raise funds for its U.S. branch. With his disarming, tongue-in-cheek salutations, he got on the phone. “God bless, God bless … The citizens of London salute you!!” In less than two hours, David cajoled $1 million out of four big U.S. CEOs.

Though David was criticized for tossing softball or ingratiating questions, he, in fact, knew what he was doing. He got his guests to relax—put them, as David would say, “into a warm bath.” In a way, many of his guests were slightly intimidated by his star power. They did not want David to leave short-changed, so they tended to speak more than less. Like a verbal snake charmer, he could swoon them into missteps, even confessions. In the Oval office, we had a hard time getting President Ronald Reagan back in his seat during a tape break, regaling as he was with laughter at Frost’s stories of the London social scene.

Frost was a master at laying traps. Once when interviewing Pierre Trudeau he asked the Canadian prime minister, “If your child tugged on your sleeve in the middle of the night, would you say “What’s up?” or “Qu’est-ce qui se passe?” Trudeau, horrified, quickly realized Frost had put him over a trap door, essentially asking him whether he felt fundamentally more French or English in a deeply divided Canada.

Off camera, David loved fine wines and superb food, but inspired conversation most of all. Unlike many current day network newsmen, he could draw from his experience as a satirist, showman, entrepreneur, talk-show host, and a tireless world traveler (he had the Guinness record for most transatlantic crossings “except for pilots,” David would quickly add). Being self-employed—an “independent” as he liked to say—he disdained “gotcha journalism” and always controlled the editorial content, resisting pressure from the White House on more than one occasion. By U.S. standards, I suspect Frost was a liberal.

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Like anyone on television, he was eager to check his ratings and reviews. A bit before midnight, we would often go to a 57th Street newsstand to buy the next day’s papers and review notices over a late glass of wine. He did many of his own program bookings, often in a phone call to the principal. Never small-minded, the worst I ever heard him say of anybody was that he (or she) was “boring.” The time I saw him most irritated was at O’Hare airport when, near starving, he had to eat junk food because his British Airways flight from London had a catering problem.

Our work appeared on ABC, NBC, PBS, HBO, CBS, A&E, BBC, and others—which often annoyed network-news people scooped by Frost’s long transatlantic hands. He was a media entrepreneur and impresario. He would make movies out of his scoops, such as taking his interview for 60 Minutes with bank robber Nicholas Leeson and turning it into a movie, Rogue Trader starring Ewan McGregor. He was one of the first to use computer-generated graphics to illustrate a TV series on famous battles from the ancient world. And a straightforward 13-part series, The Next President With David Frost, on the 1988 presidential candidates, quickly transformed into a multimedia package involving The New York Times, Mutual Radio, and U.S. News & World Report.

This summer, Frost and I spoke about putting a TV miniseries for HBO back into play, marking the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation next year. Written by Oscar-winner Robert Bolt and titled Young Nixon, the project was shelved when Time Warner realized it had two Nixon projects at the same time, the second a movie, starring Anthony Hopkins. Frost’s own life became the focus of a film Frost/Nixon which earned five Oscar nominations. Ironically, it was Richard Nixon, the gift that never stopped giving (and whom Frost, I suspect, did not like) who gave a well-deserved boost to Frost’s later career.

When criticized somewhat sanctimoniously by U.S. media for paying Nixon $600,000 for an interview, he pointed out, correctly, that NBC News had offered more when calculated on an hourly basis.

More often than not, David was far more interesting than his guests, a point not lost on some of them. He was amused by his big-screen notoriety after Frost/Nixon. One night in London, we agreed, that the film had him wrong in two respects: first, David never put socializing ahead of work, particularly when a big interview was on the horizon. Often he would call at 4 a.m. and ask mind benders like, “Was the incremental tax rate 0.34 percent or 0.35 percent in federal budget due to an adjustment in the Federal Reserve …?” The other thing the film got wrong was the premise that David was a neophyte, better suited for interviewing the Bee Gees. By the time Frost sat down with Nixon in 1977, Frost had done almost 200 political interviews. “It was just better for the story arc,” David insouciantly observed.

David Frost was a man of boundless energy, fierce loyalty, disarming charm, and keen intelligence. He was not one to look back, regret, or philosophize. The TV industry today does not lend itself to originals like Frost, and there are not many like him even if it did. One of my friends rang hours after his death and sized up David’s life credo this way: “Stay busy and enjoy.” He did it to a fault—not a bad way to live.