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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 3)

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.' "

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."

He returns to the sofa and takes a puff from his cigar. "Where were we?" Ah yes, he says, it's refreshing--it's good to be sitting in the opposite chair for a change.

"It sharpens you up," he says. "I do more interviewing than being interviewed, but I do get interviewed quite often and it helps you check out your reflexes. Sometimes you get a good idea from a question somebody else asks. And it confirms the basic rules of an interview."

The first basic rule, he says, is to prepare--his staff will often spend months researching everything there is to find out about a subject. For an interview with Alexander Haig, they even read Haig's master's thesis. But even more important, he says, as obvious as it sounds, is paying attention.

"People used to say about me with a tone of astonishment, 'He listens.' But it is such a given, as far as I'm concerned, that you must listen. Some of the best questions are ad-lib follow-ups to what someone has just said that's fascinating. And of course, the fun of doing it is listening, isn't it? It's important to do your homework and prepare, in terms of striking up the relationship with the person you're talking to and all that; the fact that you've taken the trouble. But what all that preparation does is liberate you to go with the ad-libbing. Sometimes people think that preparing a lot shackles you, but the answer is, of course, that you're not shackled. You are liberated to go with whatever comes up rather than having to stick with the one narrow area you know about.

"I remember one interview with Tennessee Williams when, from the very first question, every single question of mine came out of something he'd just said. It was so provocative, so bewildering. We were talking about the fact of heterosexuality and homosexuality. And at the end, he paused and grinned, and the audience grinned with him, and he said, 'I've covered the waterfront.' And he said it so charmingly that the audience virtually applauded."

Before you can hope for the ad-lib, however, you must get your subject to loosen up. "You have to overcome the slightly abnormal atmosphere that television provides," Frost says, "One way is with direct eye contact. If you're interviewing someone you've never met before, the fact that they may have seen you on television and you've seen them on television actually helps, because it sort of breaks the ice. It's almost as if the first meeting becomes a reunion, because you both know each other from television. One may know a bit more about the other and wants to get something through to them. That all helps. But I would guess the most important thing is to ask them questions they haven't heard before, questions that challenge them, to get them absorbed into the conversation as quickly as possible."

Frost leans forward. "But in the end," he says, "a lot of good interviewing is just basically instinct. For instance, especially when it comes to silence. Silence in an interview can be very good."

Silence? On television? Television usually abhors silence.

"There are three forms of silence," he says. "There's the sort of silence that feels as though it's going to go on forever, because the person has forgotten what they're going to say. It's an embarrassing silence, an awkward silence, a switch-off sort of silence. You have to leap in as quickly as possible when you sense it's that sort of silence, because then two seconds can be an eternity. It's not telling or revelatory. It's just awkward.

"But the second type of silence--there are times where you just sense that if only you shut up the person's going to go further of their own volition and they'll reveal more, they'll say more. They don't like the silence, and they'll say anything to fill the silence, and sometimes that 'anything' is really worthwhile. With that sort of silence you let it roll, and the result can be very exciting. How do you tell which silence is which? It's just instinctive."

Then there is the third sort of silence. "It's a pause at the beginning of an answer, when they're thinking. That's terrific, because it shows that they probably haven't been asked that question before and they don't have a ready answer. I remember a marvelous silence, when I was interviewing Pierre Trudeau when he was prime minister of Canada, and then as now there was tension between French-speaking Quebec and all the English-speaking provinces. And this also shows that sometimes the most lighthearted and simplest-sounding questions can be the most telling. You don't have to get angry with someone--that will often shut people up rather than open them up.

"I looked at Trudeau and said, 'If someone was to wake you in the middle of the night by shaking you, would your first words be in English or French?' It sounded like a question he might be asked at a cocktail party. And there was a marvelous pause, when he realized that this was not just a playful question but that there were [a certain percentage of] votes at stake here, depending on which way he went. You could see he was thinking, and you had that great live television moment when you could see he wasn't prepared. And then he made a very good comeback. He said, 'Well, I'm often awakened in the middle of the night by my sons. And if they say, 'Alo, Papa,' I say, 'Oui,' but if they say, 'What's up Dad,' I say, 'What's up yourself?' So I guess it would depend on the language of the person who was waking me up.'

"Then I said, 'That's why I said they only shook you. So you didn't have that cop-out.' And he roared with laughter."

Repeating a question, until you get the answer you're seeking, can sometimes be a very effective technique--and can make the subject appropriately uncomfortable. "In 1974, Edward Heath was the British prime minister and Harold Wilson was the leader of the opposition," Frost recalls. "It's normally a given that the prime minister and the leader of the opposition, although they may attack each other on the floor of the House of Commons, really get on well; they sort of like each other when the lights are turned off. But in this case, though Heath would never admit it publicly, he couldn't stand Harold Wilson. I was interviewing Heath, and I asked a very simple question. I just said, 'Do you like Harold Wilson?' And he said, 'Well, it's not a question of liking or disliking, it's just important that the business of government should be continued, and between us we insure that that happens.'

"And I said, 'But do you like Harold Wilson?' And he said, 'I don't think we're interested in that sort of thing. The Labor and Conservative parties have different views on certain issues, but we have a duty to the electorate that the issues of the day should be ventilated, and I think we do that.'

"Heath's tone of voice indicated that the subject was closed. So I paused. And then I said, 'But do you like Harold Wilson?' And he said, 'Well, we'll have to see about that, won't we?' And he laughed awkwardly. That last remark said it all. It was quite clear what he really felt. It's only occasionally that you can repeat a question--and to be effective, it has to be precisely the same words."


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