Obit­u­ar­ies

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MATT SCHUDEL schudelm@wash­post.com

The comic satire ca­reer of David Frye, 76, took off with his im­pres­sion of Pres­i­dent Richard M. Nixon.

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.

Af­ter serv­ing in the Army, he worked for his fa­ther’s of­fice clean­ing busi­ness in New York while try­ing to gain a show-busi­ness foothold by per­form­ing for free in night­clubs un­der his stage name, David Frye.

He did first-rate im­pres­sions of Kirk Dou­glas, Jimmy Ste­wart, Rod­ney Dangerfield and other en­ter­tain­ers, but Mr. Frye’s break­through came in 1966, when he be­gan do­ing an im­per­son­ation of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

A sub­sti­tute per­for­mance at the Vil­lage Gate in New York be­came a six-month stint, and a guest ap­pear­ance on “ The Merv Grif­fin Show” brought him na­tion­wide ac­claim.

Al­though he was best known for his dev­as­tat­ing Nixon im­pres­sion, Mr. Frye said he did not vote and pro­fessed lit­tle in­ter­est in pol­i­tics be­yond us­ing it as ma­te­rial for his act.

He was an equal-op­por­tu­nity of­fender and of­ten spoofed Nixon’s 1968 pres­i­den­tial op­po­nent, Humphrey.

“When I wake up in the morn­ing, I say ‘ Whoopee!’ ” Mr. Frye said in char­ac­ter as John­son’s for­mer vice pres­i­dent. “ When I go to bed at night, I say ‘ Whoopee!’ And I want to say I’m proud as punch to be run­ning for the pres­i­dency of the United States.”

Af­ter Nixon re­signed in 1974, Mr. Frye had a fi­nal flurry of pop­u­lar­ity be­fore re­ced­ing into show-busi­ness ob­scu­rity. He moved to Las Ve­gas, where he lived alone. Sur­vivors in­clude a sis­ter.

In later years, Mr. Frye at­tempted comebacks with new im­pres­sions of Bill Clin­ton and both Ge­orge Bushes, but he knew his hey­day had come and gone with Nixon.

“Frankly, I would pre­fer him to re­main in of­fice,” Mr. Frye told Newsweek in 1974. “ There’s no one as funny as he is. It’s his ges­tures, his move­ments, his neu­ro­sis. . . . Nixon is a neu­rotic. He’s as neu­rotic a pres­i­dent as we can imag­ine.

“I’m a neu­rotic man, and neu­ro­sis comes easy to me.”

1972 PHOTO/THE WASHINGTON POST

Co­me­dian David Frye, who died Jan. 24, was known for his comic im­i­ta­tion of Pres­i­dent Richard M. Nixon and other po­lit­i­cal fig­ures.

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