When Frost landed Nixon

Ed Bark

Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Ed Bark, former longtime TV critic of The Dallas Morning News, blogs about TV at the website unclebarky.com.

(CNN) — Barbara Walters getting very personal with Monica Lewinsky.

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Steve Kroft squaring off against Bill and Hillary Clinton during a pivotal 1992 campaign interview.

Lance Armstrong going to confession with Oprah Winfrey.

All were “big get” interviews in what’s become TV-speak for marquee encounters. But while various outlets now vie for the first post-“twerking” sitdown with Miley Cyrus, let’s not forget that the biggest get of them all is still the exclusive property of David Frost, who died Saturday.

His series of May 1977 interviews with former President Richard Nixon, revisited in the acclaimed 2008 feature film “Frost/Nixon,” remains the Mount Everest of all such face-offs. The interviews also built a major bridge — since crossed many times — between the worlds of showbiz and traditional “hard news.” Against all odds and in the face of unyielding skepticism from “real journalists,” the man who once hosted “Let’s Twist on the Riviera” went toe-to-toe with Nixon in his first interviews after resigning the presidency on August 9, 1974.

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In largely pre-cable times, and three years before the launch of CNN, Frost paid $600,000 for Nixon’s time. That prompted the reigning ABC, CBS and NBC news divisions to reject Frost’s advances rather than stoop to “checkbook journalism.” He was left to cobble together a network of independent stations in the United States to broadcast the interviews, another precedent-shattering effort that far preceded Geraldo Rivera’s 1986 syndicated ratings smash, “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults.”

Frost’s four taped 90-minute interviews with Nixon, which aired weekly, began with a May 4, 1977, program devoted to Watergate. And the widely perceived ladies’ man with the sugar-coated interview style came away with the ultimate trophy — an apology after Nixon’s earlier burst of defiance.

“I think unless you say it, you’re going to be haunted for the rest of your life,” Frost said, in search of an acknowledgment from Nixon that he had betrayed the public trust.

“I let the American people down, and I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life,” Nixon said — after earlier leaving Frost open-mouthed with the assertion that “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”

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I re-watched the “Frost/Nixon” movie Monday night, and was re-impressed by the performances of Michael Sheen and Frank Langella in the title roles. Although some dramatic license was taken, director Ron Howard pretty much crystallized the initial perception of Frost in an early exchange between Langella’s Nixon and his agent, Irving “Swifty” Lazar (played by Toby Jones).

“Doing it with Frost would be a whole lot easier than doing it with Mike Wallace,” Lazar tells Nixon, who also hoped to use the interview to publicize the publication of his memoirs.

“It would,” Nixon agrees. “But it would have a lot less credibility.”

But Lazar says they’d be paid a lot more by Frost. And so the deal was sealed.

The late Wallace, then in his early years as “60 Minutes'” most famous bulldog, had an entertainment background himself as the host of several 1950s game shows. But he seemed to view Frost as an inferior during their at-times-combative “60 Minutes” interview. It aired shortly before Frost’s first 90-minute program with Nixon. In an excerpt from their real-life exchange, Frost tells Wallace that he hoped for a “cascade of candor” from the former president.

“A cascade of candor from President Nixon? Is this what you expect?” Wallace shoots back.

“No,” says Frost. “It was just a phrase that I thought would appeal to you.”

Wallace later tells Frost point-blank that Nixon is “hardly going to confess on the air anything about Watergate.” He has a book coming out, so “why would he give it to you?”

Wallace’s underlying implication is that he would have been able to pry a mea culpa out of Nixon, while an amateur showman such as Frost would be unequal to that task. But Frost holds his ground, telling Wallace that “a lot more facts” about Watergate are now known. And that Nixon “realizes if he misses this opportunity, no one’s going to buy the book anyway.”

Frost and Nixon clashed on Watergate in the last of their taped sessions, although the Watergate segment ended up airing first. It drew a reported 45 million viewers, easily outdrawing rival programming on ABC, CBS and NBC.

Frost went on to interview a succession of British prime ministers, in addition to former president George H.W. Bush and, in 1992, maverick presidential candidate Ross Perot for a PBS special.

Perot proved to be perhaps even pricklier than Nixon, telling Frost, “Everything you’ve just said is incorrect” after his interviewer suggested he had problems “dealing with equals.”

Frost later told me his encounter with Perot was “a very refreshing experience,” although he would have to “acclimatize himself to being challenged.”

Post-Nixon and pre-Perot, Frost continued to mix and match, lending his name to political satire (“Spitting Image” after his earlier mid-1960s tenure as host of NBC’s “That Was the Week That Was”); game shows (“David Frost Presents Ultra Quiz”); and entertainment specials (“The Spectacular World of Guinness Records”).

But in the end he’ll largely be remembered as a one-hit wonder who, 36 years ago, changed the face of television by doing it his way. He came, he saw, he conquered.