Bill Katz: David Frye, RIP

Bill Katz is the proprietor of Urgent Agenda and our occasional contributor. Bill draws on his experience as a talent coordinator at The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to recall David Frye:

David Frye is dead. Make no mistake about that.
Indeed, those very words – “Make no mistake about that” – were key to making Frye the best, and most influential political impressionist of the late 1960s and early 70s, the time of Vietnam, Richard Nixon, and cultural rupture.
David Frye died last week.
Frye was the logical successor to Vaughn Meader, the leading John Kennedy impressionist, whose career had effectively ended when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. One thing about political impersonators – their careers depend on the success, and survival, of those they “do.” You can do dead movie stars. They still “do” Bogart. Deceased or fading politicians have a very low share price.
Frye’s time was also the tail end of the era when television still had variety shows. Ed Sullivan was on the air. The Smothers Brothers were with us for a time. Johnny Carson told his staff, including me, that The Tonight Show was really a variety show, and he ran it that way. CBS had Merv Griffin, ABC beamed Dick Cavett, and David Frost hosted his own show out of New York. There were national outlets for political impersonators.
Frye burst upon us with an impression of Richard Nixon that went far beyond any that had been done. A truly great impressionist doesn’t simply do voices and gestures. He gets the attitude of his subject right. He seems to be inside that person’s head. So Frye contorted his face into a scowling, but, more important, suspicious Nixon, the insecure Nixon who would say, “I am the president. Make no mistake about that.” The line caught on. You heard it in supermarkets.
Then Frye went further. He did what any first-class impersonator does…he invented an entirely new impression of someone who hadn’t been correctly “done” before. In Frye’s case it was William F. Buckley, Jr. The wagging tongue. The delight in his eyes when tossing out an obscure word that no one else knew. The self-identification, with the emphasis in an unlikely place: “This is William F. Buckley June-yur.”
He did Lyndon Johnson and defined the folksy, yet conniving president. He got Nelson Rockefeller, a bit too ambitious and eager. Before Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, it was Frye who defined RFK as sounding like Bugs Bunny.
A word about impressions: When you watch an impressionist, he’s usually not doing the person he says he’s doing. He’s doing the first impressionist who got that person right. Ed Sullivan was mimicked by many performers. But they really weren’t doing Sullivan. They were doing Will Jordan, a young comedian who defined the Ed Sullivan of the stiff shoulders, the dour face, and the “really, really big show.” Once David Frye came on the scene, those who did Nixon, Johnson, Buckley and the others who’d gotten Fryed were really mimicking David Frye.
Like most funnymen, Frye had a sad side. He was very bright, but so unsure that he couldn’t answer a simple, unrehearsed question. When he was scheduled to appear on The Tonight Show we were warned not to throw any curves at him. Nothing spontaneous, nothing he didn’t expect. But it happened anyway. On a night he appeared, there was an actor beside him on the couch. I believe it was James Coco, and he was describing how he’d just been robbed.
Carson casually turned to Frye and asked, “David, have you ever been robbed?” Frye stared back blankly and replied, “I wasn’t prepared for that question.” It was a sad, devastating moment.
David Frye faded away with the figures who’d made him famous. In recent years he was in almost complete obscurity. But for a time, in a tumultuous period, he was the best at what he did.
There are no successors to David Frye. Yes, we have political impressions on “Saturday Night Live,” and Tina Fey will always be known as the one who “did” Sarah Palin. But, in the Nixon era, David Frye was the president.
And make no mistake about that.

Frye’s Washington Post obituary includes a video and notes that Frye was 76 when he died last week.


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