Legendary British television interviewer Sir David Frost died Saturday night at the age of 74.
Frost, whose 1977 interview with Richard Nixon forever changed the tenor of political interviews on television, suffered a fatal heart attack on a cruise ship on which he was speaking. At the time of his death, Frost was employed by Al-Jazeera English, where he hosted two different interview programs.
British Prime Minister David Cameron released a statement calling Frost an “extraordinary man with charm, wit, talent, intelligence and warmth in equal measure.”
Frost’s showmanship, understated humor, and access to some of the most iconic figures of the latter half of the twentieth century helped elevate the one-on-one interview to global event status, paving the way for the likes of Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Geraldo Rivera and Martin Bashir. His mannerisms were moneyed but his interview style was populist, his interests the same as the average viewing public’s, his methods for getting to the point assertive and unfailing.
Frost’s story was not unlike that of Nixon himself. A middle-class minister’s son born at the tail end of the Great Depression, Frost worked his way to Cambridge and found himself successful in his craft at a very young age before a period in the professional wilderness and a major comeback.
Frost first gained national attention in his native Britain as host of “That Was the Week That Was,” a satirical news and comedy show that ran for two seasons on the BBC in 1962 and 1963. Airing live on Saturday nights as the Beatles were breaking out in Britain and shortly before Lenny Bruce was tried for obscenity in the United States, “TW3″ lampooned politics and religion in landmark ways, with Frost playing the sly, buttoned-down presenter to a barrage of subversive sketches, including Lance Percival’s dirty talk with an English-speaking car. The show was controversial enough to warrant cancellation prior to the 1964 elections, only to resurface in a less edgy incarnation on NBC in the United States from 1964-65.
Frost’s return to the BBC, first with a short-lived program co-hosted by poet P.J. Kavanaugh and then with “The Frost Report,” allowed him to refine his role as the conservative straight man against a backdrop of countercultural anarchy. “The Frost Report” employed the talents of future Monty Python stars John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle, as well as Britain’s beloved “Two Ronnies” and writer Marty Feldman.
Though the program, laced with class satire and a liberal political undercurrent, influenced “just about every satirical programme in the UK for the next 30 years” according to a BBC retrospective, Frost himself never broke out as much of a comedic performer. In fact, just two years after the “Frost Report” ended, Cleese announced Frost’s personal telephone number on an episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” leading to numerous prank calls.
Smarmy and well-coiffed, Frost was aesthetically representative of traditional British television — just hip enough to use his persona to clash onscreen with the likes of Cleese, but not quite hip in his own right. Such was his curse throughout the Vietnam War era, as he crisscrossed the globe to host a string of middlebrow interview shows in England and New York, including “The David Frost Show” from 1969 to 1972, which featured then-Beatle John Lennon tossing “acorns for peace” at the studio audience. His journalistic remote segments were relatively lightweight but frequently entertaining, as exemplified by his 1974 piece at Muhammad Ali’s training site as Ali braced himself for his victorious “Rumble in the Jungle” against heavyweight champ George Foreman.