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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.
| By Mervyn Rothstein | From 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.' "

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."

Frost pauses for another puff and looks expectantly at his visitor--there's that eye contact, no matter which chair he occupies; eyes that are actively engaged, eyes that probe and smile simultaneously. The next question?

What was his most difficult interview? Was it the now-legendary marathon talk with Richard Nixon, when he got the former president to admit that he had "let down the country"? Or was it a less-famous one, one that perhaps only he remembers?

He thinks. "Nixon was a great challenge," he says. "And when people said it was impossible to do, that made it irresistible. It was difficult in that he was in so many ways a fascinating enigma. Here was a man who had no small talk at all. For more than 30 years he was at the center of American political life but he had no small talk. But with Nixon it was just a question of making sure one got to everything in the 24 hours we had. And of course, we ended up asking for four and a half hours more. It was very challenging because it demanded a year of research before the interview. But the most difficult? No."

He pauses and thinks again. "I'm sorry I don't have a ready answer," he says. But then he smiles. "Perhaps it was the time I interviewed what was supposed to be the world's greatest talking bird," he says. "It turned out to be the Marcel Marceau of talking birds. It wouldn't utter a single peep, or whatever. Then I had to ad-lib. But of course it was funny, too."

Or perhaps, he says, getting serious again, it was Baldur von Schirach, the former head of the Hitler Youth organization. "It was that he seemed to have no conception of the size, the scale of the horror they had inflicted," Frost says. "For instance, when you say to anyone, as I said to him, 'If there's one thing future generations in Germany should remember about Adolf Hitler, what should it be?' Well, there's only one answer to that question, obviously: the genocide of 6 million people. And he said, as he did"--and suddenly Frost breaks into a letter-perfect British music-hall version of a German accent--" 'Ze vonderful vay he dealt vith unemployment in ze '30s.' Well, it makes its own point, doesn't it?

"Then, later in the interview, he said, 'You know, Mr. Frost, at Spandau ve grew tomatoes und ve vere not allowed to give ze tomatoes to ze old people of Spandau because zay had been grown by ze var criminals. Zo zey vere taken out und burnt. Mr. Frost--do you realize vat it can do to a man to haff his tomatoes burnt?' It was unbelievable.

"Then, finally, he said, 'I haff been reading about you, Mr. Frost, und did you know I became ze head of ze Hitler Youth at ze same age you did 'Zat Vas Ze Veek Zat Vas'? So ve haff a great deal in common, Mr. Frost.' I was appalled. As quickly as I could I said, 'No, we haven't.' "

It seems appropriate at this point to change the subject, and Frost is asked about his favorite, or his most memorable, interviews. There have been many, of course, but he immediately remembers one: "It was when I interviewed Robert Kennedy in 1968 at the Benson Hotel in Portland, Oregon, in what, alas, turned out to be the last long personal interview he ever gave."

Kennedy had the reputation of being a cold-blooded politician, but "he had mellowed a lot at the end of his life," Frost recalls. "I wanted to talk to him about his boating down the rapids, and the quote of Edith Hamilton's he often used about how 'men are not born for safe havens,' and I said, 'Some people have described you as reckless.' And he looked at me and smiled and said, 'No, no. Ruthless.' Which was so sweet. He was helping me out with the insult. It was a very attractive quality. All the people who criticized him at that time said he was ruthless. I said, 'Some people have said that your reputation for ruthlessness dates back to when you had to do the difficult dirty things behind the scenes in the 1960 election as campaign manager for your brother.' And he said, 'No, no, that's just my friends making excuses for me.' "

Kennedy, Frost says, "had an incredible charisma. I've always said that I don't know how you define charisma except as Robert Kennedy on that particular day."

Frost himself certainly has at least a touch of that charisma, a touch that traces its way back to his childhood in the small town of Tanterden in the countryside of Kent, where he was born on April 7, 1939, the son of a Methodist preacher.

"I had an incredibly happy childhood," Frost says. "I think the reason I've been able to cope with love and enjoy such a mad and hectic existence is because my childhood was so happy. My parents were very happily married. It was small-town English life. I was really unaware there was anything else you did on a Sunday other than go to church three times. I never really rebelled from that. I didn't have an atheistic period."

He attended local schools. "I did not go to boarding schools or public school, as the fee-paying schools are called here," he says. "I had two sisters who were much older than me, so I suppose I was something of an only son. And I was the first member of my family to get to Cambridge."

Frost excelled in academics and sports, and just before accepting a scholarship to Cambridge in 1957, he turned down an offer to play professional soccer with the Nottingham club.

"It was mind-boggling to get the soccer offer," he says. "But there were two reasons I said no. One was that I wanted to go to Cambridge. The other was--and it seems unbelievable these days when athletes are so highly paid--but back then soccer in England had a maximum wage of only 15 pounds a week."

He had already written reviews for Methodist youth-club publications, and he knew he "wanted to be involved in writing and performing and producing and all that." At Cambridge, he joined Footlights, the renowned revue and cabaret society. "Then I started doing some television for the regional station, which was in Norwich. There was a program called 'Town and Gown' that the station did about Cambridge. And for the Christmas edition in December 1959 they decided they wanted a spoof of television, and they came to Footlights and asked me and Peter Cook"--who would later co-found the Beyond the Fringe comedy troupe--"to write it. We went to the station to do it, and I walked into this rather odd environment of a television studio and I thought, 'This is home. This is for me.' It was an instant feeling, and from that moment on, for me the decision was made. It was a very memorable day."

After graduating, Frost worked at a London commercial network, ITV, spending his evenings doing a comedy act at local clubs. Then, in 1962, came "That Was the Week That Was," and the television career he had sought began to take off.

A few years later, in 1968, Frost smoked his first cigar. "It was when I wanted to go on a diet for a short while," he says. "My first courtship with cigars was as a dessert substitute."

He eventually went back to desserts, but he had fallen in love with cigars. "I just got the taste for cigars," he says, "and I have enjoyed them ever since. It's always been Havanas. Finding substitutes for Havanas is not easy. I smoke at least half a dozen a day. I used to love the torpedoes, but these days I find they're slightly more difficult to get in really good condition. I like the slightly chunky cigars, like Epicure No. 2. Upmann and Partagas have both got chunky cigars. And the Romeo y Julietas are perfect for travel."

Generally, he says, he prefers a social smoke. "It's quite a brotherhood, isn't it, the brotherhood of cigar smokers? It's so civilized. I tend to smoke at business meetings. But then again, I enjoy a solitary smoke, too. I'm often in the country on Saturdays, and I prepare for a show I do in London every Sunday morning called 'Breakfast With Frost,' and I like to smoke while I'm working. I just like the feeling of smoking. It's relaxing. And it helps me concentrate and clear my mind."

He also appreciates a good bottle of wine. "Oh, almost anything in the way of reds from 1961, obviously," he says. "And Penfolds Grange from Australia. I'm also very much into Château Gruaud-Larose '85, which is a fantastic year. And I love American Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. I think I've tried almost every Chardonnay. I enjoy the Jordan Cabernet and the Grgich Hills Chardonnay. And for a real treat, for dinner for two, when there's something to celebrate, my wife and I usually turn to a Corton-Charlemagne. That's luxury."

Over the years, Frost has written more than 17 books, produced many movies, won two Emmys and started two television networks--London Weekend Television and TV-am. In 1983, he married Lady Carina Fitzalan Howard, the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. They have three sons--Miles, 12, Wilfred, 11, and George, 9--and Frost spends much of his limited spare time on the soccer and cricket fields with them.

On Dec. 31, 1992, David Frost became Sir David Frost.

It would seem that he has accomplished everything he could have possibly imagined. And yet, he says, there is more. There are still interviews to do, subjects to pursue. "I would like to interview the Pope," he says. "Provided my Latin is up to it, or my Polish. It's one of those situations where they say, 'Not at the moment.' You could argue that 'not at the moment' is a euphemism for 'never.' But for some years, I remember, Rose Kennedy was a 'not at the moment' situation, and then she did the interview. Sooner or later, 'not at the moment' turns into 'yes.' "

There may still be other fields to conquer. "Yes, there are things I have not done that I would like to do," says Frost. "But it's probably something that is not yet around. One always wants to be where the new frontiers are and try and find them and seize the opportunities. But one can really only guess what they are until they come along."

He has spent so much of his career, as he has said, trying to find out what makes other people tick. Has he learned in those years what makes him tick?

He thinks he has. "There's a lot of my father's and mother's philosophy in me," he says, "in that I hate wasting time. I don't like wasting money, either, but I really hate wasting time. There's the sense of having a duty to use what time you may be given to the fullest. I guess it's a very Methodist, a very Puritan idea. And there's also something else. My father often used to quote an obscure Turkish proverb, which was that 'Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.' I love it, because it underlines the fact that everybody, a taxi driver or a monarch, has something to teach you, and it's up to you to find it."

Frost is fond of asking his subjects how they would like to be remembered after they are gone, so it seems only fair to pose that question. For such a public figure, his reply is surprising.

"When I asked Moshe Dayan what he would like people to say about him after he was dead, he looked at me and said, 'Say about me after I'm dead? But that's what I'm dead for: not to care what people say about me.' There's a lot of wisdom in that. People worry so much about what their contemporaries say about them.If you worry about what posterity will think, you'll never do anything risky."

He pauses--that moment of silence. It is a good silence. "I think," he says, "that if I turn out to be half as good a father to our three boys as my father was to me, then I'll be very happy indeed."

Mervyn Rothstein is an editor at The New York Times and a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator.

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