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Tricky Dick and the Dane: The 40th Anniversary of the Frost-Nixon Interviews

From its corner in the den, a painting of an American Indian wearing a headdress peeks across Jorn Winther’s head. Winther, an 87-year-old producer and director, sits on a blanket-draped armchair. One foot rests on an ottoman as he explains how he earned mention in a knight’s memoir.

Winther’s Danish accent gives his storytelling a benign, buttery patina. “How Nixon happened is that I used to work with David Frost,” he explains. “Have you seen the movie?” 

I’ve seen Ron Howard’s 2008 film "Frost/Nixon." I nod.

Winther replies, “That movie is not honest. It’s a lot of bullshit. Nixon never called Frost in the middle of the night. But he called me.”

The British broadcaster phoned Winther to invite him to direct the famed 1977 interviews of the former president. The interviews took place over 12 days and CBS went on to air them in four installments beginning on May 5 and ending on May 8. The interviews would become the pair’s most notable television collaboration and one of history’s most significant and widely watched political interviews. That collaboration, however, was not the first between Frost and Winther. The two had worked together on the Guinness Book of World Records and David Frost Salutes the Beatles, a reunion special during which John Lennon and Paul McCartney refused to play together.

Winther gestures at the walls of the Sherman Oaks rancher he shares with his wife. “If we could’ve gotten the Beatles to play together during that show,” he laments, “we wouldn’t be sitting in this house. We’d be in a mansion!”

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In addition to hiring Winther, Frost hired Nixon. “Frost worked hard to get Nixon because the networks wouldn’t touch him,” Winther says. “Nixon wanted a shitload of money because he wasn’t doing well financially and the networks wouldn’t pay it.” Frost understood the value of the disgraced president’s story and paid him $600,000 for it, a pricey pinnacle in the annals of “checkbook journalism.” The same year of the interviews, Gerald Ford, who’d pardoned Nixon in 1974, also sold the presidency, becoming the first former president to be paid a public speaking fee.

Initially, the interviews were going to be held at Nixon’s “Western White House,” his Spanish colonial revival mansion, La Casa Pacifica, in San Clemente. Winther recalls that signals from the U.S. Coast Guard interfered with the crew’s sound equipment so Nixon placed a phone call, asking for the boats to be moved. Since he was no longer commander-in-chief, nobody moved a thing. A real estate agent sent to scout for a new location mustered 1 Monarch Bay Drive, a Dana Point home belonging to Harold and Martha Lea Smith, Nixon supporters. Frost’s large crew approved of the new site. The house’s toilet flushed quietly, a plus in their line of business.

Winther stresses that he and Frost approached the interviews, right down to furniture selection, strategically. “We had to get a chair that Nixon could be comfortable in and sit in forever without wanting to get up to go meet with his team.” After taking Nixon’s measurements, a suitable chair was secured. Nixon’s team, which included Ken Khachigian and Diane Sawyer, conferred with him between takes in a bedroom. Frost’s team, which included James Reston Jr. and John Birt, worried about when Frost should quit lobbing softball questions. Should Frost go hard towards the beginning, middle or end of the tapings?

Before the tapings began, Winther and Frost debated this question: what ought to sit between Nixon and Frost during filming? At La Casa Pacifica, Winther attempted to settle the matter after Nixon turned to him and said, “You’re the director. What should be between us?”

“How about a map of Denmark?” the Dane answered.

Nixon invited Winther to join him at a globe. Nixon spun it, located Denmark, pointed at it and said, “There’s really nothing important about Denmark except for the people who live there.” Nixon slid his fingers to a similarly small country, Cuba. “Look at this,” he urged. “This is a blister. This is a boil.” Next, Nixon pointed to China. He grumbled, “They’re going to own us.”

Nixon Frost Interview

China, and Trump’s preoccupation with it, brings Winther back to the present political moment. “Trump is different from Nixon,” he muses, “but both are thin-skinned.” Winther shifts in his armchair, pantomiming Nixon’s jowly slouch. “And they are both liars. The thing that makes Trump worse is that he denies facts.” He points at me and says, “Trump would see you but say you are not sitting there typing on your laptop.”

By the end of 12 days, Frost had managed to achieve a feat that had eluded the American media. His shrewd preparation milked a mea culpa. “I let down my friends,” Nixon confessed. “I let down my country. I let down our system of government.” 

Between takes, Winther sat with Nixon, making small talk. Nixon mostly spoke about his wife and daughters. He bad-mouthed the press and blamed them in a manner that Winther says reminds him of Trump. He adds that “Nixon took some responsibility which Trump will never do.”

Nixon Frost Interview

Winther downplays his role in the interviews. “Directing them was nothing,” he says. “Anybody could’ve directed it. All you had to do was make sure the place was well-lit and that the cameras were aimed at Nixon. It wasn’t Star Wars.”

By the time Winther was in post-production, he had over 24 hours worth of material. He hardly slept during the editorial process. He would finish a cut, drive to the Beverly Hilton Hotel, screen the latest version and return to his editing space with notes.

The stakes rose when Winther started receiving phone calls inviting him to leak the interviews. Callers offered him up to $80,000 for advance clips. Winther never entertained the offers but worried that others might. He also worried that the material might be tampered with or stolen. To prevent that from happening, he moved the editorial headquarters to the back room of a Hollywood massage parlor on Cahuenga Boulevard.

Winther worked there, surviving on a diet of cigarettes, tacos and insomnia until the place caught fire. Remarkably, the footage went unharmed and once the first episode aired, it broke records, garnering 45 million viewers. The interviews also rehabilitated Frost’s reputation, casting him as a tough interrogator instead of lightweight entertainer.

For those in the market for a seaside home, La Casa Pacifica is back on the Multiple Listing Services. Its current owner, Gavin S. Herbert, CEO of Allergan, the company responsible for Botox, is pricing it for $63.5 million. Nixon died in 1994 and is buried about forty miles from La Casa Pacifica, in Yorba Linda. David Frost, who went on to interview Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, was knighted in 1993. He died in 2013 and is buried in Holy Trinity Churchyard in Oxfordshire, England.

Jorn Winther is still directing. His latest work, "Do It or Die," a movie documenting the 1979 kidnapping of socialite Elaine Chaddick, was shown at this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival. Winther remains passionate about storytelling and continues to believe that Nixon thought the interviews might repair his reputation. With directorial panache, he quips, “the American people love an apology,” and this statement seems equally aimed at the past and present.

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