The British TV personality and interviewer David Frost died this past weekend, after suffering a heart attack aboard a cruise ship, the MS Queen Elizabeth, where Frost had been booked for a speaking engagement. He was 74.
Frost, who became noted for his ambition when he was still a student at Cambridge—where, among his other extracurricular activities, he served as editor of the campus literary magazine Granta, 15 years before it was turned into an international publication—originally had one foot in the British “satire” boom of the early 1960s. After being spotted performing in a London cabaret club, Frost was hired as host of the satirical TV revue That Was The Week That Was. The show included written contributions from the likes of John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Peter Cook, Roald Dahl, Dennis Potter, Kenneth Tynan, Keith Waterhouse, and the poet John Betjeman, running in the U. K. for two seasons in 1962 and 1963. After the British version of TWTWTW was canceled, Frost hosted an American version for NBC, with a cast that included Alan Alda, Buck Henry, and Tom Lehrer. It ran from 1964 to 1965.
From 1965 to 1967, Frost hosted another satirical British comedy series, The Frost Report, now best remembered as a breeding ground for what became Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Cleese, Chapman, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones all worked on it, as did Marty Feldman, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett, and Lehrer.
Frost followed that up with The Frost Programme, where he more fully developed a probing, sometimes confrontational interview style, as seen in his notorious interrogation of the international swindler Emil Savundra. This gave rise to the phrase “trial by television.”
At his most popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Frost had interview series running on both sides of the Atlantic, with such prized guests as Muhammad Ali and John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
He also dabbled in film production—including 1970’s The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer, starring Peter Cook as a character maliciously based on Frost himself. (It was Cook who—after accusing Frost of being a material thief, back when they were both starting out on the comedy circuit—tagged him with the nickname “The Bubonic Plagiarist.”)
By 1977, Frost’s name had cooled a bit, but he pulled off perhaps his greatest feat of entrepreneurship and packaging—if not his most impressive journalistic coup—by landing a series of “exclusive” interviews with disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon. The dozen interview sessions were broken into four broadcasts and sold into syndication, and featured Nixon’s infamous claim that he was not guilty of any crime—because, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” Frost’s book about the interviews, They Gave Me a Sword, memorably described Nixon trying to make show-business small talk by asking him whether he’d done any “fornicating” over the weekend. Both moments were recreated in Frost/Nixon, the play Peter Morgan wrote about the whole affair, which later formed the basis of Ron Howard’s 2008 movie starring Michael Sheen as Frost.
Following the Nixon interviews, Frost interviewed the deposed Shah of Iran several months before his death.
Frost went on to host a string of shows in the U.K., notably Breakfast With Frost, which ran from 1993 until 2005, and Through The Keyhole, which ran from 1987 to 2008. He also had a weekly show on Al Jazeera English from 2006.