Jorn Winther, the director on the landmark David Frost-Richard Nixon interviews that kept television and radio audiences transfixed over four consecutive nights in 1977, has died. He was 88.
Winther was killed Nov. 9 in an automobile accident in front of Palm Desert High School outside Palm Springs. He was on a business trip and on his way back to his Sherman Oaks home, his wife of 31 years, Claire, told The Hollywood Reporter.
In the 1960s, Winther directed for the ABC music showcase Shindig! and worked on variety shows hosted by the likes of Jonathan Winters, Sonny & Cher and Barbara McNair.
He later spent more than five years as an executive producer and director on ABC’s One Life to Live and helmed episodes of other soap operas including ABC’s All My Children and NBC’s Another World and Santa Barbara.
Winther and Frost already had collaborated on a pair of 1975 “salute” specials, about the Guinness Book of World Records and The Beatles, when the British television personality contacted the director, asking if he would help with an interview session that Frost had set up with the disgraced former president.
The interviews started in March 1977 and took place over 12 days in a span of four weeks in Monarch Beach, California, not too far from Nixon’s “Western White House” in San Clemente. This was about two-and-a-half years after he had resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal and was in self-imposed exile.
“Frost worked hard to get Nixon because the networks wouldn’t touch him,” Winther said in a 2017 interview that appears on the KCET website. “Nixon wanted a shitload of money because he wasn’t doing well financially, and the networks wouldn’t pay it.”
The president was paid $600,000 and received a share of the profit from the broadcasts as well.
The interviews, airing on independent stations, played in four 90-minute installments, from May 5 through May 8. The first one attracted 45 million viewers. Nixon famously told Frost at one point: “I let down my friends. I let down my country. I let down our system of government.”
Winther edited down 24 hours’ worth of material for the finished product. The sessions served as the basis for the 2006 Peter Morgan play Frost/Nixon and then the 2008 Ron Howard film adaptation that starred Frank Langella and Michael Sheen.
Born in Denmark, Winther studied speech and drama at the University of Copenhagen and continued his education at the Royal Theater in Copenhagen, where his mother had danced as a prima ballerina. He also studied at the Stratford Shakespearean Theater in Ontario, Canada, and at Stanford.
More recently, Winther directed and produced the independent film Do It or Die!, about the 1979 kidnapping of socialite Elaine Chaddick. It screened at the 2017 Palm Springs International Film Festival.
He also is survived by six children and four grandchildren.
In his interview last year, Winther downplayed his role in the Frost-Nixon interviews. “Directing them was nothing,” he said. “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.”