David Frye, mimic who used Nixon as object of satire, dies at 76

Charles Osgood reports on the loss of David Frye and Charlie Callas, two comics who helped to define an era.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 29, 2011; 10:33 PM

David Frye, who became one of the country's most popular comic satirists with his realistic and caustic impressions of President Richard M. Nixon and other political figures, died Jan. 24 in Las Vegas of cardiopulmonary arrest. He was 76.

After doing impersonations of movie stars, Mr. Frye began to introduce politics to his act in the mid-1960s and his career exploded. His subjects included a drawling President Lyndon B. Johnson, a gravel-voiced Nelson Rockefeller and an excitedly cheerful Hubert H. Humphrey.

But his most memorable character by far was Nixon, whom Mr. Frye portrayed as a tortured soul with darting eyes, flaring brows, scowling lips and deep-seated insecurities. The longer the president stayed in office, the deeper Mr. Frye's impressions drilled into Nixon's psyche.

"My administration has taken crime out of the streets," Mr. Frye's Nixon said in one Watergate-era routine, "and put it in the White House where I can keep an eye on it."

Mr. Frye perfected his impression by matching Nixon's vocal tones and modulations, by adopting a few of the president's catch phrases, such as "Let me make this perfectly clear," and by creating a few of his own, including "I am the president, and make no mistake about that." He practiced in front of a mirror every day.

Whether he intended it, Mr. Frye transformed nightclub mimicry into sharp-edged political satire that drew a national following. The mere title of his best-selling 1969 comedy album "I Am the President," managed to make Nixon sound both pompous and weak-kneed.

Reviewing the album, a Time magazine writer noted, "Nixon's singsong baritone is so close to the mark, it makes one hope Frye never gets near the hot line."

Mr. Frye did more than imitate the sound of Nixon's voice, commentators often pointed out: He seemed to inhabit his very being.

"I do Nixon not by copying his real actions but by feeling his attitude, which is that he cannot believe that he really is President," Mr. Frye told Esquire magazine in 1971. "He's trying to convince himself when he says, 'I am the President!' And the moving eyes and tongue merely symbolize the way his mind is working."

After the Watergate scandal began to engulf Nixon in 1972 and 1973, Mr. Frye's satire became even more pointed.

"As the man in charge," his version of the president said in the 1973 album "Richard Nixon: A Fantasy," "I, of course, accept the full responsibility. But not the blame. Let me explain the difference. People who are to blame lose their jobs. People who are responsible do not."

Mr. Frye was born David Shapiro in Brooklyn, N.Y., in June 1934. While attending the University of Miami, he began doing mime and vocal impressions in campus shows and in Miami strip clubs.

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