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David Frost: An appreciation

David Frost, who died Saturday of a heart attack at the age of 74, was witty, urbane, charming, incisive, decisive, worldly, vastly curious, deeply intelligent and -- quite simply -- one of the most influential broadcasters in the history of the medium. His style, both copied and mimicked, established a template for interviewing excellence in his native Britain and became a standard of excellence for his peers in the U.S. His closest peer in age and influence here was Mike Wallace, who admired Frost -- just as did everyone else who has ever sat before a camera and asked questions of world leaders. 

From the BBC report on his death, these quotes: "David loved broadcasting, did it brilliantly for more than 50 years and was eagerly looking forward to a host of projects -- including interviewing the prime minister next week -- before his sudden and tragic death. We will all miss him enormously," according to one of his former producers, Barney Jones.

Prime Minister David Cameron said: "Sir David was an extraordinary man, with charm, wit, talent, intelligence and warmth in equal measure. He made a huge impact on television and politics." 

From a U.S. perspective, the Nixon/Frost 80-minute May 4, 1977, telecast that covered Watergate -- the first of four programs -- was seen by 45 million viewers, making it the "M*A*S*H"-finale equivalent for TV news. The story of that interview became the basis for a superb Ron Howard movie, with Michael Sheen as the world-beating interviewer who for the first time cornered on TV the already cornered president. Sheen was superb in the film, but how was Frost in that amazing interview? Likewise: His questions were specific, fully contextualized and fairly proffered. The best ones were always right to the point: "Why didn't you pick up the phone and call the cops" when it became obvious crimes had been committed? "Could I take my time to address that question?" says Nixon, who in fact does.

In the movie, Frank Langella's Richard Nixon became Richard II -- a towering human figure of venality and nobility. His Nixon ultimately seemed to quake and crumble under Frost's onslaught. The movie did not necessarily distort the real interview or subject either, and -- as that huge viewership figure only barely indicates -- was one of the most influential in TV history. Nixon would not speak to any other prominent American interviewer during the Watergate imbroglio, which to me all these years later hints at one of Frost's other towering attributes: fairness. 

The interviews were intensely controversial in that moment so long ago, in part because Frost's production company paid a fortune for them. But as Frost said in an interview (with me) in 1994, "I think he probably regretted [the interviews] afterwards, but as it turns out, the mea culpa he so reluctantly gave did eventually enable him to resurface in American life two or three years later. It did act as a catharsis."

For a fuller look at the interviews, please head here (App users, watch the video at newsday.com/tvzone.)

 Some clips:

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