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King of the Q & A

What Do Clint Eastwood, Jack Kemp, Richard Nixon and the Beatles have in common? they were all interviewed by David Frost.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

For more than three decades, David Frost has specialized in asking provocative, revealing questions of the rich and famous, the powerful and notorious, the crowned and renowned.

He has sat opposite hundreds upon hundreds of celebrities and politicians, artists and writers, movie stars and athletes, military men and musicians, trying and often succeeding in getting them to reveal a little or a lot of the truth behind their public mask--or, as he once called it, their "what-makes-people-tick factor."

He has chatted with Richard Nixon (in the highest-rated news interview in television history), Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin, George and Barbara Bush, Robert Kennedy, Sirhan Sirhan, Prince Charles, Idi Amin, Tennessee Williams, Golda Meir, Nelson Mandela, Salman Rushdie, Muhammad Ali, Jacques Cousteau, Warren Beatty, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Woody Allen, the Rev. Billy Graham, John Wayne, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, King Hussein, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Newt Gingrich, Robin Williams, Orson Welles, Garth Brooks, Clint Eastwood, Jack Kemp, Isaac Stern, Ted Turner, Jane Fonda, Elton John, the Shah of Iran and the Beatles--to name just a few.

But today Frost will be in the other seat. He has, over the years, become as famous as many of his subjects, and as he ushers a visitor into his lavish suite at the St. Regis Hotel just off Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, it is his turn to be interviewed.

"I thought that before we begin we would light up a couple of cigars," he says in his impeccable British accent. He is ever the perfect host, his relaxed, informal, easygoing and unfailingly polite manner calculated to put his interviewer at ease, just as he has calmed many a nervous talk-show guest. "It somehow seems appropriate, given we're doing this for Cigar Aficionado. And I have this lovely California Cabernet. I've just tried it; would you like some?"

He presents the wine, already poured, then lifts from the coffee table two aluminum tubes, each holding a Cuban Romeo y Julieta No. 2. "I like the chunkier, smaller cigars," he says. "And I always take tubed cigars with me when I travel. They're easier to carry than a humidor and they keep the cigars well enough. I know it's maybe only 95 percent the quality I would get if I kept them in a humidor. I always use a humidor at home. But I like the convenience. The trick is to ration the cigars so I light up the last one on the way to the airport for the flight home."

He sits on the sofa, takes out a guillotine cutter, snips the cigar's end, proffers the cutter to his guest, strikes a match, carefully creates a perfectly rounded ash and slowly takes his first puff. "There's just nothing like a Havana," he says with a smile.

As he puffs, Frost begins to reminisce about some of his experiences, some of the stars in his galaxy of subjects. First and foremost is Richard Nixon, who admitted to his interviewer, after long hours of questioning, that in the Watergate scandal he "let down the entire country."

Even after 12 days of face-to-face questioning, Frost says, it was impossible to really know the former president. "He was so impersonal," Frost recalls. "He erected a wall to stop other people from gazing into his heart, and probably also to stop himself from gazing into his heart."

In recent years, Frost says, the most charismatic person he has interviewed is Nelson Mandela, the president of South Africa. "Courage is a very difficult word to define," Frost says. "But one definition is Nelson Mandela. What everyone admires about Mandela is how he could have been wrongly incarcerated for 28 years and emerged without bitterness. Such a triumph of the human spirit! When I asked him how he managed it, he simply said, 'David, I would like to be bitter, but there is no time to be bitter. There is work to do.' "

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