Frost/Nixon: From TV Interviews to Stage to Screen

Playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan was first drawn into the world of David Frost and Richard Nixon in 1992. He had seen a televised biography of the broadcaster and was fascinated by what Frost had been able to accomplish with his infamously canny subject during 1977's series David Frost Interviews Richard Nixon.

Image of Two Men

As he relayed to Richard Brooks in a Sunday Times piece in July 2006, the writer was “driven by this image I had of these two men. The glamorous Frost, 54,000 feet up in the air, going backwards and forwards over the Atlantic on Concorde. And Nixon, a man really living in a cave. A man who found life very hard.”

Complex Historical Figures

Long interested in examining the humanity of complex world figures such as Queen Elizabeth II, Idi Amin and Henry the VIII, Morgan would research not only former president Nixon, but also one of his greatest (and most unexpected) antagonists: David Frost, the playboy of British TV whose entire credibility and career rested on the unique opportunity of extracting a confession during the interviews.

Morgan was intrigued by the contrasting lives of the two and believed that their story would lend itself well to a stageplay format. He felt that if he were to design the square off, he would need to wrap the interviews as “an imminent gladiatorial contest where the only weapons allowed were words and ideas.”

Of his research into the subjects, Morgan observes, “I could see both camps were preparing one another in the way that chess adversaries or boxing adversaries prepare—very strategic. I thought it would be possible to write interview scenes with the actual words that were used, but somehow sew them together to construct something with the ups and downs of a really satisfying contest.”

Dynamics of Social Interaction

In studying their social interactions, Morgan discovered something that would serve him exceptionally well as a dramatist: each man was an opposite of the other in fundamental ways. He reflects, “If you separate Nixon the human being and Nixon the politician, you can't help but feel for someone who found life so difficult—-communication, friendship. Then you look at someone like Frost who finds life, certainly socially, very easy; he's very naturally gifted at communicating with people, making friends, being liked. Nixon was quite the opposite, really—-suspicious of people, wounded, probably didn’t have many close friends, an unhappy marriage—a very lonely man.”

Formidable Thinker

The writer believed that the showman best-known for puff pieces and fawning journalism was also misunderstood…and quite underestimated by his then contemporaries. “Frost had a great intellectual insecurity,” he shares. “He just wasn't taken seriously.” Of Frost's interviewee, he adds, “The one thing you could never lay at Nixon's door is the charge that he was stupid. He was a formidable thinker.” Morgan took these ingredients and “became excited to bring these two people together.”

When creating the play, Morgan engaged in extensive conversations with many who had been involved in the original interviews, including Sir David Frost and others who would ultimately be portrayed on the West End theatrical stage where Frost/Nixon debuted. As he offered to Gareth McLean in his interview with the Guardian in August 2006, “Everyone I spoke to told the story their way. Even people in the room at the time of the interviews tell different versions. There's no one truth about what happened off camera or behind-the-scenes during the period covered in our story. I felt very relaxed about bringing my imagination to the piece.”

Understanding the Medium:

As personified by Frost, a recurring theme of Morgan’s developing play was the growing influence and foggy responsibility of the fourth estate in shaping public opinion, as relevant an issue today as it was in the post-Watergate era when the Frost/Nixon interviews were taped, and even earlier in American history.

Since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Fireside Chat in March 1933, topics from bank crises and national security to the latest war and/or conflicts have been readily available for dissemination to an eager American public, and inspiring works of historical fiction.

While politicians have long sought to control the medium by delivering the perfect message point, with the market penetration of television they had a new method with which to sway opinion. That concept offered Morgan much drama from which to draw.

Taking a cue from the camps that surrounded Frost and Nixon before the infamous interviews, Morgan delved into further research about how the burgeoning medium created the public personalities of Frost and Nixon. What he found was enlightening, particularly on just how TV dictated and was manipulated by both men.

While television had been Nixon’s adversary many times throughout his career, it had also been an invaluable ally in his rise to power. In September 1952, he had used it masterfully during the so-called “Checkers Speech,” a sentimental plea during the time he was embroiled in an ethics scandal that threatened his candidacy as the Republican nominee for the vice presidency. Arguably, he came across austere and plainspoken, a solid product of his Quaker upbringing. And upon Eisenhower's request, in March 1954 the then vice-president brilliantly manipulated the media to make a name for himself during his powerful speech in the Army-McCarthy hearings, skewering a man some previously felt above reproach.

It would not stay Nixon's ally forever. The 1960 televised presidential debates between Kennedy and him marked the beginning of a new era in which politicians could present their message and pundits feverishly analyze it. Nixon, sweating profusely and with running makeup, was soundly thumped as the dashing JFK remained calm and collected. Candidates would now be judged not only on their relevant experience for the
job at hand, but their comparative telegenic appeal.

That hard lesson would not prove fruitless, and provided rich history for Morgan. Nixon rebounded to win the nation’s highest office. Throughout his subsequent presidency—from his July 1969 meetings with President Nguyen Van Thieu in South Vietnam to his February 1972 historic outreach to Asia with Chinese Party Chairman Mao Zedong—-he worked hard to become telegenic and approachable. And then came Watergate.

The impact with which television hammered Nixon's Watergate sins into the public's consciousness overshadowed the successes of his two terms in office. As the specifics of those crimes which led to his resignation on August 9, 1974, faded in the collective memory, the former president, through his agent, Hollywood legend Irving “Swifty” Lazar, began looking for a way to bring his accomplishments back into the
American consciousness. Nixon would give that most powerful medium one more chance to serve or betray him.

But he would set the ground rules and choose his perceived weakest opponent. David Frost began his career on TV as a young comedian whose buoyant enthusiasm was a wicked counterpoint to the dire events reported on the faux news program That Was the Week That Was. This groundbreaking satire fell victim to the
same government officials it lampooned when, during an election year, the BBC cancelled the show because it might be an “undue influence.”

Frost next became part of an American version of the program that ran from
1964 to 1965. It was his first taste of fame in the U.S. and it made him want more. In the late 1960s, Frost headlined The Frost Programme for British ITV. It was a precursor of the “trial by television” shows that would later become a genre in both news and reality formats. It was also a major change for the erstwhile comedian: Frost came to
be taken seriously as an interviewer. However, the lure of fame in America drew him back to the world of entertainment. 1969-1972 saw Frost become host of a celebrity talk show called The David Frost Show, featuring guests ranging from Richard Burton to the Rolling Stones. Then the show was dropped and Frost was unable to find another American network that would hire him.

He hosted a celebrity-driven chat show in Australia, but longed both to get back on the air in the U.S. and to be regarded with gravitas. When he hit on the idea of interviewing Richard Nixon, he had to convince a number of people that he was the man for the job. But it was, ironically, his reputation as a “lightweight” that lured his intended subject to agree to the series of historic interviews.

When the special aired, politicians more than anyone realized the reductive power of Nixon’s close-ups, and how that pressure led to his confession. From that moment on, television would be used to not only deliver their messages, but, better still, a personality package—often in place of anything substantive. The maturation of the medium and how TV would forever influence politics fascinated Morgan, and it would become the playwright’s throughline for this work.

Morgan was keenly aware that, in shaping this story, TV as equalizer would be examined. As he documents, these two men rolled the dice—-with promises of ruin or resurrection—and gave it everything. Nixon relied on his ample skills as a negotiator and statesman. Frost on his ability to have others open up and reveal to him what they weren't certain they wanted to share. And that made for good TV.

The series of Frost/Nixon interviews, according to writer James Reston, “remains the most watched public affairs program in the history of television,” with a viewership of more than 45 million. It would be the last major appearance on television for Richard Nixon before he died in April 1994.