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British Journalist Sir David Frost Dies At 74


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. We're saying good-bye, this morning, to the man who conducted one of the most famous television interviews in history.


DAVID FROST: So what in a sense you're saying, is that there are certain situations where the president can decide that it's in the best interests of the nation or something and do something illegal?

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: Well, when the President does it that means it's not illegal.

INSKEEP: That was, of course, former President Richard Nixon shortly after he had resigned from office. He was being interviewed by Sir David Frost, a British journalist whose career would be defined by that 1977 television special. On Saturday, Sir David Frost died from what is suspected to be a heart attack. NPR's Nathan Rott has our remembrance.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The interview was taped over the course of four weeks, two hours at a time. It would total 29 hours in the end. But it wasn't until the last hours of the last day, that Sir David Frost got what he had wanted.


FROST: First time, only time he was late. He was always absolutely punctual, but he was 17 minutes late and he had a little bit of that haunted look that he had at the time of Watergate actually happening. And I sensed that at that at that moment he was the most vulnerable he'd ever be, ever again.

NIXON: I let the American people down. And I have to carry that burden with me, for the rest of my life.

ROTT: At the time, Frost's back and forth with Nixon were the most widely watched news interviews in television history. They would later inspire a play and in 2008, Hollywood rendered its own version - the Oscar-nominated movie "Frost/Nixon."


MICHAEL SHEEN: (as David Frost) Just so I understand correctly, are you really saying that in certain situations, the President can decide whether it's in the best interests of the nation and then do something illegal?

FRANK LANGELLA: (as President Nixon) I'm saying that when the President does it, that means it's not illegal.

ROTT: Frost had gambled big on Nixon, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the ex-president to agree to talk. And it paid off. Frost became an international star. But for British television watchers, he was already a bit of a known commodity. The son of a Methodist minister, Frost had found some earlier broadcasting success, using an on-screen charm that disarmed interviewees. And a quick wit that lent itself to satire.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (singing) That was the week that was. It's over. Let it go...

ROTT: "That Was the Week That Was" was a satirical news program that aired on the BBC. Think of it as the 1960's version of the "Daily Show." It helped launch the career of John Cleese and many of the other men that would form the comedy group Monty Python. Frost was the show's anchor.


FROST: Thank you very much indeed. Hello. Good evening. And welcome. It was revealed this week that under Labour, the number of houses built has fallen. And the number of houses that have fallen, have risen.

ROTT: Frost hosted a number of programs and game shows during his 50-year broadcasting career. And though the Nixon interview is the one he's most remembered for, it wasn't the only one where he put an international figure in the hot seat. In a 1969 interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, he let some of their more interesting music help ask his questions.


ROTT: Can you - what is that saying to us, John?

JOHN LENNON: Well, that's just saying whatever you want it to say.

ROTT: Frost would interview many iconic figures: Muhammad Ali, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, and Orson Welles. That's just to name a few. But he always said that the Nixon interview was the highlight of his career. And it was a career that he worked until his death. Frost was working for Al Jazeera at the time of his death and was planning a new series, with the BBC. He is survived by his wife and their three sons. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.