I Am the President: The Rise and Fall of David Frye

Most people, if asked to attempt a Richard Nixon impression, would do the same few basic things. They’d stoop their shoulders, furrow their brows, puff out their cheeks a little, frown prodigiously, and say things like “I am not a crook!” and “Let me make this purrrrrfectly clear!” in a deep, guttural voice. A quick check of any real-life Nixon speech or interview will show that America’s 37th president didn’t actually talk or act quite that way, but that’s nevertheless how a proper Nixon impression is still done to this day. Knowingly or not, the imitators are not actually copying Richard Milhaus Nixon, at least not directly. Instead, they’re channeling David Frye (1933-2011), an impressionist whose definitive portrayal of Nixon proved to be both his creative peak and his eventual undoing.

The man who would be more Richard Nixon than even Nixon himself was born David Shapiro in Brooklyn on November 21, 1933, as America was mired in the worst of the Great Depression. By the time he started appearing on talk and variety shows in the late 1960s, he was David Frye. It was de rigueur for Jewish entertainers to give themselves WASP-ier stage names in those days. According to Gerald Nachman’s Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Frye was inspired to become a mimic after watching fellow comedian Will Jordan, who became famous for his Ed Sullivan impression in the 1950s. Like most successful comics of the era, David Frye rose up through the nightclub circuit before he began popping up on the tube, but it took him a while to get there. He was already in his mid-30s when Ed Sullivan came calling for him. (Jordan had accomplished the same feat by 27.) From there, though, the TV guest spots kept coming: Dean Martin, the Smothers Brothers, the Lennon Sisters, Steve Allen, Joey Bishop, Tom Jones. They all booked David Frye, some of them repeatedly. Late bloomer or not, he was on his way.

Even in those early days, though, before he morphed into America’s weirdest, saddest president for a living, David Frye was an unlikely candidate for mega-stardom. He was short (5’4”) and pudgy and wore his dark hair practically lacquered to his skull. His nose was long and bulbous, and his intense eyes were ringed with dark circles. He had bushy eyebrows, drooping jowls, and a five o’clock shadow. And there was a sweaty, nervous desperation to his act, an unspoken but unmistakable neediness in his performances. It is no wonder that that, unlike other popular comics of his generation, Frye booked exactly zero appearances on sitcoms and in films. His manic, oppressive energy would have been all wrong for Bewitched or Petticoat Junction.

Frye did a full range of celebrity impressions, including Marlon Brando and Kirk Douglas, but his specialty was politics. Before Richard Milhaus Nixon came into his life, David Frye’s signature character was Lyndon B. Johnson. To see Frye as LBJ is to see what made him so oddly compelling as an entertainer. When he portrayed the tough-talking Texan, Frye would don a pair of wire-frame glasses, squint, raise his eyebrows as high as they’d go, tuck in his chin, and contort his mouth into a reptilian grin. In so doing, he looked uncannily like an unflattering caricature of Johnson from a newspaper editorial cartoon. And, though he tried to affect a folksy, humble manner, Frye’s LBJ revealed himself as a fearsome predator as he drawled out lines like, “Believe me, I tried to be a good king.”

It was the president after Johnson, however, who proved an eerie match for David Frye, both physically and temperamentally. The phoenix-like resurrection of Richard Nixon was undoubtedly the political story of 1968. After serving as vice president under Eisenhower in the 1950s, Nixon had failed to gain the presidency in the 1960 election and then failed even to become the governor of California in 1962. That disastrous campaign had ended with Nixon’s deeply bitter, seemingly career-ending tirade against the press: “You won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore.” But Nixon came back bigger than ever in 1968, defeating Hubert Humphrey in a hotly contested presidential election, and David Frye was ready for him. In a way, Frye had been preparing for the role all his life. Finally, here was a public figure whose covetousness, insecurity, and paranoia matched his own. A 1971 interview with Esquire showed that David Frye understood Richard Nixon on the molecular level: “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.”

David Frye’s golden age lasted from 1969, the year Nixon took office, to 1974, the year he resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Those years saw 11 Frye appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and at least four Nixonian comedy albums: I Am the President (1969), Radio Free Nixon (1971), Richard Nixon Superstar (1971), and Richard Nixon: A Fantasy (1973). I Am The President was popular enough to reach #19 on the Billboard chart in early 1970. For their time, the albums were edgy. Impressionists had aped politicians before, of course, but none had taken a consistently nasty satirical perspective on them before the way Frye did with Nixon. In this aspect, Frye even surpassed his predecessor, Vaughn Meader, who had become a chart-busting sensation with his John F. Kennedy impersonation, only to find himself profoundly unemployable after November 22, 1963.

But in the long run, what happened to Meader happened to Frye as well. After Richard Nixon’s resignation of the presidency in the wake of Watergate, Frye was no longer in demand. In the minds of the public, Richard Nixon and David Frye had unfairly become synonymous. When we were done with the former, we were done with the latter, too. David last appeared on The Tonight Show in October 1974, two months after Nixon’s resignation. After that, he was gone for good from late night television. The next few decades would see him drift further into irrelevance and obscurity. A humiliating anecdote in Seriously Funny recounted how Frye was nearly dragged away by security guards when he approached talk show host Arsenio Hall in public in the 1990s. Only the fact that Hall recognized David Frye from The Ed Sullivan Show granted Frye a reprieve.

But what of the man behind the funny voices? Sadly, the historical record reveals David Frye to be a lonely, reclusive, and deeply unhappy person. In his 2000 book The Last Laugh: The World of Stand-Up Comics, author Phil Berger describes Frye as “a dark brooding figure whose moods capsized in a shot glass” and says that “Frye was best when he had another man to be. On his own, he was in trouble.” When Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, Berger says, Frye lamented only how it affected his act. Both The Last Laugh and Seriously Funny include an anecdote from critic John L. Wasserman, who witnessed a disastrous 1973 Frye performance in San Francisco on a night when the comedian repeatedly flubbed his lines, insulted the audience, and “generally made a shambles of the entire affair.” After that performance, Fye was fired by his employer, the Fairmont Hotel, for being drunk on the job.

That negative impression is continued by Robert Klein, who devoted a few unhappy pages to David Frye in his memoir The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue: A Child of the Fifties Looks Back. Klein and Frye were both comedians who worked out of Budd Friedman’s Improv in New York in the 1960s, so they crossed paths occasionally in those early days. Klein was suitably impressed by Frye’s “brilliant” talents: “He actually seemed to become, body and soul, the person he was imitating.” But Klein was less taken with the “highly eccentric, hard-drinking, ill-tempered” Frye himself. Klein corroborates Phil Berger’s story about Frye’s reaction to RFK’s death and tells a doozy of a tale about what happened one night at the Improv when the morose, disagreeable Frye unwisely attempted to heckle Rodney Dangerfield. Rodney, says Klein, was “an excellent improviser.” Frye was not and embarrassed himself with “a slew of profane but hardly clever vitriol.” It was not difficult for Rodney Dangerfield to put David Frye in his place, scolding him like a child: “Don’t you raise your voices to me.” Klein also says that David Frye “would often get into arguments at the Improv” and “could enjoy and not enjoy his hard-earned success in a manic-depressive way.” The David Frye who emerges in The Amorous Busboy is a morbid, joyless careerist.

A consistent theme that emerges when Frye’s name is brought up is that, for a supposed comedian, the man had very little facility for conversation and was heavily reliant on others to come up with funny things for him to say. In his book, The Bitter End: Hanging Out at America’s Nightclub, Paul Colby wrote: “David was a great impressionist who didn’t have much of a sense of humor. What he had was a lot of good writers.” Phil Berger agrees: “The nuances Frye found in others, he himself lacked. In casual conversation, eye contact was negligible, which was rare among comics.” Berger even claims that David Frye’s utter inability to make small talk was “a sore point” with Johnny Carson.

Watching David Frye perform on Dick Clark’s 1978 variety show Live Wednesday, it is not difficult to understand why this man gradually disappeared from the comedy scene. His moment in the national spotlight long over, Frye emerges in this clip as a man with virtually nothing to say. Maybe he couldn’t hire those “good writers” anymore. He looks nervous and flustered as he paces the stage in an ill-fitting tuxedo. “You remember me, don’t ya?” He gives the crowd a few fumbling seconds of LBJ (who’d been dead five years by then) and a few more seconds of Nixon, seeming less like a professional entertainer and more like someone doing a semi-clever party trick. When it comes time to mimic his old hated rival, Rodney Dangerfield, Frye masters the voice and the body language but cannot come up with a Rodney-style joke to save his life. “Hey, how ya doin’, ya know? Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey, this is Rodney. You know what I mean?”

Without Richard Nixon to kick around anymore, David Frye lost the best friend his career ever had. He tried sending up other inhabitants of the White House on albums like David Frye Presents The Big Debate (1980) and Clinton: An Oral History (1998), but the public was largely uninterested. David Frye’s last brush with anything even remotely like cultural relevance came in 2005, when Universal added a pseudo-documentary prologue to Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski on DVD, explaining (fraudulently) that the film had been remastered from a pristine Italian language print and that John Goodman’s voice had been dubbed by “master impressionist David Frye.” It was a winking cultural reference by the Coens, but perhaps it was a backhanded compliment as well, seeing as how Lebowski is all about people hopelessly stuck in the past. Jeff Bridges’ burned-out character, ex-radical Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, even keeps a picture of Nixon on the wall of his Venice Beach bungalow as a memento of the good old days. Involving David Frye in the project would have been right in keeping with the film’s deliberately out-of-date vibe.

In reality, David Frye increasingly withdrew from both show business and from the world in general in his later years, but he never totally gave up on his craft. In the late 2000s, Gerald Nachman tried without success to contact Frye for Seriously Funny and inadvertently discovered that the comedian did a very credible Al Gore imitation on his answering machine. In November 2010, a mere two months before he died, Frye or someone acting on his behalf posted a promotional video to YouTube showcasing Frye’s “Voices of America,” curiously dubbing it “A Patriotic Video.” The montage includes decades-old footage of Frye as Nixon again, as well as his imitation of George C. Scott as General Patton. But there is audio of Frye impersonating more contemporary subjects, too, like George W. Bush, Jesse Ventura, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld.

David Frye died of cardiopulmonary arrest in Las Vegas on January 24, 2011. A lifelong bachelor, Frye was survived only by his sister, Ruth. A sympathetic New York Times obituary dug up a quote Frye had given to Time back in 1974: “It’s a weird feeling, knowing that you can lose the guts of your act at any time.”

I Am the President: The Rise and Fall of David Frye