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2013-09-03

David Frost, 74, Remembered by Director Ron Howard for Historic Interview with Richard Nixon

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Ron Howard, Academy Award-winning filmmaker and one of the most popular American directors of this generation. His previous films include A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Splash and The Da Vinci Code. He began his career as an actor and starred in a number of hit films and TV series, including The Andy Griffith Show.

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British broadcasting legend David Frost has died at the age of 74 after a heart attack. He spent more than 50 years as a television personality best known for his signature long-form interviews, particularly for a series of historic interviews he conducted in 1977 with the disgraced former president, Richard Nixon, who had resigned three years earlier. The interviews lasted more than 28 hours and ended with Nixon making a tacit admission of guilt regarding his role in the bugging of Democratic rivals at Washington’s Watergate building and the later cover-up. The interview was later dramatized in the 2008 film "Frost/Nixon," directed by the Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ron Howard. In December 2008, Democracy Now! interviewed Howard about the film.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we end with the British broadcasting legend David Frost, who died at the age of 74 after a heart attack this weekend. He spent more than 50 years as a television personality, best known for his signature long-form interviews. Over the years, Frost interviewed no fewer than seven U.S. presidents, seven British prime ministers, as well as John Lennon, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela and many others. In 2006, Frost joined Al Jazeera English.

David Frost is best known for a series of historic interviews he conducted in 1977 with the disgraced former president, Richard Nixon, who had resigned three years earlier. The interviews lasted more than 28 hours, ended with Nixon making a tacit admission of guilt regarding his role in the Watergate scandal. For the first time, Nixon apologized for the bugging of Democratic rivals at Washington’s Watergate building and the later cover-up.

RICHARD NIXON: I’m sorry. I just hope I haven’t left—let you down. Well, when I said I just hope I haven’t let you down, that said it all. I had. I let down my friends. I let down the country. I let down our system of government and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but will think it’s all too corrupt and the rest. Most of all, I let down an opportunity that I would have had for two-and-a-half more years to proceed on great projects and programs for building a lasting peace, which was—been my dream, as you know, from our first interview in 1968, before I had any thought I might even win that year. I didn’t tell you I didn’t think I might win, but I wasn’t sure. Yep, I—I let the American people down. And I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life.

AMY GOODMAN: The interview was later dramatized in the 2008 film Frost/Nixon_. Frank Langella played Richard Nixon, and Michael Sheen played David Frost. The film was directed by the Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ron Howard, based on the hit play of the same name by the British playwright Peter Morgan. Ron Howard is one of the most popular American directors of this generation. In new">December 2008, I interviewed him about the film and began by asking why he decided to make Frost/Nixon.

RON HOWARD: It was, you know, such a remarkable discovery by Peter Morgan. The drama that was swirling behind the scenes is—was so surprising, and I think what it revealed about both individuals and also television as a medium. And it also turns out to be just a very entertaining story.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s a remarkable story. First of all, you start off with David Frost, who’s watching Nixon resign. He’s in Australia.

RON HOWARD: Right, doing his television show. At that point, he was doing his TV show in the U.S. and Australia and in London. And he was just, you know, on this constant swirl. His show was canceled in America. And he had been, you know, this rising star, but he had begun to plateau. In fact, he was the first—what’s interesting about Frost is that he was the first mega television star in England, and—but it was a comedy show. You know, he came out of comedy. And some of the guys who wound up being Monty Python were actually writers on that show. And it was kind of like—you know, it was political satire. It was sort of like The Daily Show or something, you know. It was called That Was the Week that Was.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to another clip of Frost/Nixon. Here, the Nixon critic, James Reston, who’s played by Sam Rockwell—

RON HOWARD: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —who is employed by David Frost to do some of the research, a real fierce Nixon critic—

RON HOWARD: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —tells David Frost what he wants to achieve with the interview.

RON HOWARD: Yeah.

JAMES RESTON JR.: [played by Sam Rockwell] I’d like to give Richard Nixon the trial he never had.

DAVID FROST: [played by Michael Sheen] Of course. We’ll be asking difficult questions.

JAMES RESTON JR.: [played by Sam Rockwell] Difficult questions? The man lost 21,000 Americans and a million Indochinese during his administration. He only escaped jail because of Ford’s pardon.

DAVID FROST: [played by Michael Sheen] Yes, but equally, going after him in some knee-jerk way, you know, assuming he’s a—he’s a terrible guy, wouldn’t that only create more sympathy for him than anything else?

JAMES RESTON JR.: [played by Sam Rockwell] Right now, I submit it’s impossible to feel anything close to sympathy for Richard Nixon. He devalued the presidency, and he left the country that elected him in trauma. The American people need a conviction, pure and simple. The integrity of our political system, of democracy as an idea, entirely depends on it. And if, in years to come, people look back and say it was in this interview that Richard Nixon exonerated himself, that would be the worst crime of all.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s James Reston, the researcher for—and wrote books on Nixon—for David Frost. And throughout the film, there’s the tension there, too—

RON HOWARD: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —of where Reston wants him to go and where David Frost, you know, constantly flashing this smile, sporting women on his arm, big celebrity interviewer—

RON HOWARD: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —is sort of dodging where he plans to go with this interview.

RON HOWARD: Well, you know, and I think for the playwright, Peter Morgan, who’s essentially a—you know, he’s a film writer. This was the first play that he had written since college. He also wrote The Queen and The Last King of Scotland and a number of terrific BBC projects, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: About the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Blair.

RON HOWARD: Yeah, yes, yes. And also The Deal, which was a great TV movie about Blair and Gordon Brown. You know, but great writer. He saw a documentary about David Frost back in 1993 that was celebrating a lot of Frost’s achievements, and one of them was, you know, the Nixon interviews, which I think, to this day, is still the most highly viewed, highly rated news interview of all time. But he—what Peter Morgan identified was that there was more conflict behind the scenes than maybe Frost, in his book, admitted. When he began doing research on the subject and interviewed James Reston, Reston’s point of view was quite a bit different in terms of how harrowing the journey was and how anxious he was about whether Frost was going to go far enough and actually achieve an admission. And without it, he just felt it was going to be, you know, a pointless softball.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how Frost got this interview. It might surprise a lot of people, when we’re talking the money which got him—

RON HOWARD: It surprised me. And, you know, I don’t know enough about modern journalism to actually know whether this kind of thing still goes on, but he paid $600,000 to Richard Nixon for the interviews, but—and plus, by the way, a profit participation in the overall enterprise, which was, you know, kind of inspired on an entrepreneurial level. The producer in me really appreciates what Frost pulled off at that time, essentially creating a fourth network for these interviews, which was unprecedented at that time.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the Academy Award-winning director and actor, Ron Howard, director of Frost/Nixon_, speaking in 2008. To see the new">full interview with Ron Howard, you can go to democracynow.org. This is a clip from David Frost’s original interview with Richard Nixon, beginning with Frost.

DAVID FROST: The president can decide that it’s in the best interest of the nation, or something, and do something illegal?

RICHARD NIXON: Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.

DAVID FROST: By definition?

RICHARD NIXON: Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: And here is more of the original Frost/Nixon interview.

RICHARD NIXON: I brought myself down. I gave them a sword, and they stuck it in, and they twisted it with relish. And I guess if I had been in their position, I’d have done the same thing.

DAVID FROST: But what I’m really saying is that in addition to the untrue statements that you’ve mentioned, could you just say—with conviction, I mean, not because I want you to say it—that you did do some covering up? We’re not talking legalistically now. I just want the facts. I mean, that you did do some covering up.

AMY GOODMAN: That was David Frost interviewing Richard Nixon. David Frost died this weekend at the age of 74.

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