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RIP, David Frost

By Rich Heldenfels Published: September 3, 2013

The interviewer and talk-show personality passed away over the long holiday weekend; I tweeted about it then, but wanted to offer a little more here. First, that Frost was far more impressive than he has at times been portrayed. I am thinking especially of "Frost/Nixon," the movie about Frost's interviews with Richard Nixon, with Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon. When the movie came out on DVD, part of my review said this:\

Then there's the whole idea of Frost as some low-rent talk-show host who is not used to interviewing the powerful. Look at The Man Who Owns the News, Michael Wolff's biography of Rupert Murdoch, and you find Frost interviewing Murdoch in 1969 -- long before the Nixon interviews -- and scourging the mogul-on-the-rise. As Wolff describes the interview: ''It's notable for the ferocity of Frost 's attack -- sarcastic, prosecutorial and sanctimonious.''

I also had a chance to talk to Frost in 1995, and to listen to him. No small talker he.

Best known for getting other people to talk, DavidFrost himself is no slouch at conversation.

It was Frost who fought Richard Nixon to a draw in a series of '70s interviews. He got Rose Kennedy for a rare chat, which was included in some of the matriarch's televised obituaries. He will sit down next week with Bob Dole for PBS' Talking With DavidFrost , and will recall his late-'80s interview with Dole, then as now a contender for the presidency. And ABC will present Frost in conversation with an expert on matters monstrous for its special, The Real Frankenstein: An Untold Story, at 9 p.m. tomorrow.

Frankenstein was nominally the topic when Frost was interviewed by telephone in his New York hotel room on Monday. But before the chat even began Frost had offered extended thoughts on voice mail. And virtually any topic prompted a story.

Asked, for instance, about being Sir DavidFrost and sorting out when to use the title and when not, Frost was off and running.

"In general it's an honor and one is delighted to have it, but one's professional name is DavidFrost . Anthony Hopkins is still Anthony Hopkins. The series on PBS is Talking With DavidFrost , not Sir DavidFrost , but in the opening it may say, 'Tonight Sir David talks with. .... ' It is my name now. You have to balance between the two.

"Robin Williams is a friend of mine," Frost said of the Mrs. Doubtfire star. "The first time we ran into each other after this happened, he said, ' DavidFrost has become a knight and I've become a dame.' I thought that was a marvelous line. .... And I remember when Laurence Olivier became Lord Olivier. And he said, 'I don't want to be Lord Olivier. I want to be just plain Sir Laurence.' And there was a newspaper story once that Princess Margaret traveled to Edinburgh 'as an ordinary first-class passenger.' Which is like being a common old garden pope."

Although Frost can talk almost anywhere, and has, he was in a pretty unusual forum for the ABC special: Castle Frankenstein in Darmstadt, Germany. In the castle's chapel Frost interviews Radu Florescu, an academic expert on Frankenstein and Dracula, who believes Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein may have been inspired by Johann Konrad Dippel, a real-life mad scientist in the region, as well as by a visit to the castle.

"One of the reasons I believe the professor's theory is that I have stood in the castle," said Frost . "There are vibes about the place. .... It's not evil, but it's slightly chilling. It's very much unlike conducting an interview in someone's office or in the Oval Office. It was very appropriate."

And The Real Frankenstein revels in such atmospherics. Although the heart of the special is, as Frost admits, a literary analysis of Shelley's work and its sources, the trappings include spooky lighting, eerie music and clips from various Frankenstein movies (from Thomas Edison's in 1910 through last year's effort by Kenneth Branagh). It discusses the modern debate over medical research where man seems to play God, which is what Shelley's novel was all about. And it presents speculative re-enactments of Shelley's and Dippel's lives.

"It is an extremely attractive legend to portray," said Frost . "And it's important to portray the popular manifestations to underline that we are talking about a very popular legend. The whole idea of man playing God has had an abiding interest for 180 years."

As for re-enacting historical events, Frost at first joked, "Dippel is scarcely going to sue." But he is not wedded to the form. "Contemporary reconstruction is shot full of doubts," he said. "But we are talking about historical maybes, a way of bringing things to life visually when we don't have another source."

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