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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

(continued from page 1)

Frost's take on Yasser Arafat is a positive one. "I wasn't really surprised when Arafat decided to take a risk on peace," he says. "In the interviews I had done with him, I had always sensed that yearning. The first time I interviewed him was in 1977, when he was seen by everybody as a devil, and even then he seemed to me to have more depth than people realized.

"There's an amusing anecdote about that interview," he says. "Because of security and the dangers then of the Israelis finding out his whereabouts, my people and I were met at the Beirut airport and blindfolded before we were led to the location where the interview was to take place. And then, having taken these precautions, in the middle of the interview he pointed out a window and quite openly he told me that his office used to be across the street but it was attacked by the Israelis. So to figure out where he was, all the Israelis really had to do was look at the interview. The blindfold was superfluous."

Frost calls House Speaker Newt Gingrich "one of the most hard-working men I've ever met. We did an interview [in 1995], and I could see as he was relaxing beforehand in the chair for makeup that he was bone-tired. But the moment the interview started and the lights clicked on, he was bang-on and informed. I sensed a man who is truly driven."

Among the most telling comments Frost has elicited was one from Prince Charles about the limits imposed on royalty. "When I first interviewed him, it was on the eve of his investiture as the Prince of Wales," Frost recalls. "We had the most memorable exchange, one that underlined so much about the life of a royal. I mentioned to him that when I was four or five years old, I wanted to be a railroad engine driver--it's what every British boy wants to be. And I said that in his case it was pointless having dreams like that, because his future was predestined. And he said he remembered that when he was a small boy he also wanted to be a railroad engine driver--but when he was six, he woke up one day and realized he was 'sort of stuck.' And I thought that using the phrase 'sort of stuck' as a way of describing becoming the King of England was a masterly sort of British understatement."

In the world of entertainment, Frost says that two of his favorite people are Warren Beatty and Robin Williams. Beatty, he says, "is very intelligent, very likable and very literate. I left getting married to quite late in life, and he left it to quite later. I once told him that if my son took as long as I did to marry and have a child, I wouldn't become a grandfather until I was 89. Warren said he had me beaten--that in his case, he would be 109."

What Frost admires most about Robin Williams is the comedian's dedication. "I once asked him to come over to London to appear at a royal gala I was organizing for Prince Charles. It was an unpaid gig, and Robin simply could have done some old material, perhaps sweetening it a little for an English audience. But he has a low opinion of sweetening, and he came over four days earlier and tried out his material for three nights, in London clubs with British audiences, so he could do a performance that wowed both the British and the American audience back home. It was a wonderful example of dedication and professionalism."

The person who has inspired Frost the most is the Rev. Billy Graham. "He was the first personal interview I ever did on the BBC, in 1964," he recalls. "I've probably interviewed him more times than anyone else, and he has had something new and delightful to say each time. Through the years his faith has remained undimmed, but he has shown more and more the ability to doubt. He once said that the first time I interviewed him, had I asked, he would have given me the dimensions of heaven. But, he said, he doesn't do that anymore. He said he had made a list of questions he wants to ask God--things he doesn't understand, like whether there is life on other planets or why God made Satan such a strong force. Even Billy Graham has questions--about suffering and pain and his own battle with Parkinson's disease. But he's such an inspiring man."

Frost smiles. In this moment of reminiscence, he truly looks inspired. His hair is largely gray now, his face considerably older than when he became a television presence in the United States in the mid-1960s, when he hosted the comedy news show, "That Was the Week That Was." But the vibrancy, the grace, the sophistication, the probing intellect are the same. Frost is 57 now, but age becomes him. Another puff or two, a sip, some small talk; it is time for the first question. How does it feel, he is asked, to be sitting on the other side?

He reflects for a moment and is about to answer when suddenly the telephone rings. He rises from the couch and walks the few steps. It is London calling. There are, it seems, visa problems. In three days, he is flying to Moscow. The Russians, to grant him a visa, require his passport. But he is in New York, and the passport is, of course, with him. And he is flying back to London in 48 hours and will need it with him then. Perhaps a Xerox copy will do? Call his assistant, he says; tell her which Russian official she will have to call to clear things up. "I'm in the middle of an interview," he says, direct but gentlemanly. "I'll call back when it's over."

He hangs up. "It's for a talk with Mikhail Gorbachev," he says. "There's an infinite amount of jugglery going on. We're doing it Sunday, before the Russian presidential election. I fly home Friday, then it's on to Moscow. It's for 'Talking With David Frost,' which appears in the States on PBS monthly, the last Friday of the month. I'm delighted to be doing Gorbachev again. I find him so fascinating--his personal journey from loyal Communist to doubting Communist to non-Communist."


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