By Frazier Moore
ABOVE PHOTO: Mike Wallace, longtime CBS “60 Minutes” correspondent, listens during an interview at his office in New York, Monday May 8, 2006. On May 21, the network will salute him with a retrospective broadcast, “I’m Mike Wallace: A ’60 Minutes’ Tribute.” Wallace died Sunday, April 8, 2012. He was 93.
(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
NEW YORK–CBS newsman Mike Wallace, the dogged, merciless reporter and interviewer who took on politicians, celebrities and other public figures in a 60-year career highlighted by the on-air confrontations that helped make 60 Minutes the most successful primetime television news program ever, has died. He was 93.
Wallace died Saturday night at a care facility in New Canaan, Connecticut, where he had lived in recent years, CBS spokesman Kevin Tedesco said.
Until he was slowed by heart surgery as he neared his 90th birthday in 2008, Wallace continued making news, doing 60 Minutes interviews with such subjects as Jack Kevorkian and Roger Clemens. He had promised to still do occasional reports when he announced his retirement as a regular correspondent in March 2006.
Wallace said then that he had long vowed to retire “when my toes turn up” and “they’re just beginning to curl a trifle. … It’s become apparent to me that my eyes and ears, among other appurtenances, aren’t quite what they used to be.”
Among his later contributions, after bowing out as a regular on 60 Minutes, was a May 2007 profile of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, and an interview with Kevorkian, the assisted suicide doctor released from prison in June 2007 who died June 3, 2011, at age 83.
In December 2007, Wallace landed the first interview with Clemens after the star pitcher was implicated in the report by former Sen. George Mitchell on performance enhancing drugs in baseball. The interview, in which Clemens maintained his innocence, was broadcast in early January 2008.
Wallace’s “extraordinary contribution as a broadcaster is immeasurable and he has been a force within the television industry throughout its existence,” Leslie Moonves, CBS Corp. president and CEO, said in a statement Sunday. Wallace didn’t just interview people. He interrogated them. He cross-examined them. Sometimes he eviscerated them. His weapons were many: thorough research, a cocked eyebrow, a skeptical “Come on” and a question so direct sometimes it took your breath away.
He was well aware that his reputation arrived at an interview before he did, said Jeff Fager, CBS News chairman and Wallace’s long-time producer at 60 Minutes.
“He loved it,” Fager said Sunday. “He loved that part of Mike Wallace. He loved being Mike Wallace. He loved the fact that if he showed up for an interview, it made people nervous. … He knew, and he knew that everybody else knew, that he was going to get to the truth. And that’s what motivated him.”
Wallace was hired when late CBS news producer Don Hewitt put together the staff of 60 Minutesat the TV news magazine’s inception in 1968. The show wasn’t a hit at first, but it worked its way up to the top 10 in the 1977-78 season and remained there, season after season, with Wallace as one of its mainstays. Among other things, it proved there could be big profits in TV journalism.
He was hands down the best television interviewer ever,” said Steve Kroft, his former 60 Minutes colleague. “I can’t think of anyone, besides (CBS legend Edward R.) Murrow, who had a greater influence in shaping television journalism.”
60 Minutes pioneered the use of “ambush interviews,” with reporter and camera crew corralling alleged wrongdoers in parking lots, hallways, wherever a comment, or at least a stricken expression, might be harvested from someone dodging reporters’ phone calls.
They were phased out after founding executive producer Don Hewitt termed them “showbiz baloney.” “”Finally I said, ‘Hey, kid, maybe it’s time to retire that trenchcoat,”’ Hewitt recalled.
Wallace’s late colleague Harry Reasoner once said, “There is one thing that Mike can do better than anybody else: With an angelic smile, he can ask a question that would get anyone else smashed in the face.”
Wallace said he didn’t think he had an unfair advantage over his interview subjects: “The person I’m interviewing has not been subpoenaed. He’s in charge of himself, and he lives with his subject matter every day. All I’m armed with is research.”
Wallace himself became a dramatic character in several projects, from the stage version of “Frost/Nixon,” when he was played by Stephen Rowe, to the 1999 film “The Insider,” based in part on a 1995 “60 Minutes” story about tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, who accused Brown & Williamson of intentionally adding nicotine to cigarettes. Christopher Plummer starred as Wallace and Russell Crowe as Wigand. Wallace was unhappy with the film, in which he was portrayed as caving to pressure to kill a story about Wigand.
Operating on a tip, The New York Times reported that “60 Minutes” planned to excise Wigand’s interview from its tobacco expose. CBS said Wigand had signed a nondisclosure agreement with his former company, and the network feared that by airing what he had to say, “60 Minutes” could be sued along with him.
The day the Times story appeared, Wallace downplayed the gutted story as “a momentary setback.” He soon sharpened his tone. Leading into the revised report when it aired, he made no bones that “we cannot broadcast what critical information about tobacco, addiction and public health (Wigand) might be able to offer.” Then, in a “personal note,” he told viewers that he and his “60 Minutes” colleagues were “dismayed that the management at CBS had seen fit to give in to perceived threats of legal action.”
The full report eventually was broadcast.
Wallace maintained a hectic pace after CBS waived its long-standing rule requiring broadcasters to retire at 65. In early 1999, at age 80, he added another line to his resume by appearing on the network’s spinoff, “60 Minutes II.” (A similar concession was granted Wallace’s longtime colleague, Don Hewitt, who in 2004, at age 81, relinquished his reins as executive producer; he died in 2009.)
Wallace amassed 21 Emmy awards during his career, as well as five DuPont-Columbia journalism and five Peabody awards. In all, his television career spanned six decades, much of it spent at CBS. In 1949, he appeared as Myron Wallace in a show called “Majority Rules.” In the early 1950s, he was an announcer and game show host for programs such as “What’s in a Word?”
After holding a variety of other news and entertainment jobs, including serving as advertising pitchman for a cigarette brand, Wallace became a full-time newsman for CBS in 1963.
He said it was the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in an accident in 1962 that made him decide to stick to serious journalism from then on. (Another son, Chris, followed his father and became a broadcast journalist, most recently as a Fox News Channel anchor.)
Wallace had a short stint reporting from Vietnam, and took a sock in the jaw while covering the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago. But he didn’t fit the stereotype of the Eastern liberal journalist. He was a close friend of the Reagans and was once offered the job of Richard Nixon’s press secretary. He called his politics moderate.
One “Night Beat” interview resulted in a libel suit, filed by a police official angry over remarks about him by mobster Mickey Cohen. Wallace said ABC settled the lawsuit for $44,000, and called it the only time money had been paid to a plaintiff in a suit in which he was involved.
The most publicized lawsuit against him was by retired Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who sought $120 million for a 1982 “CBS Reports” documentary, “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception.” Westmoreland dropped the libel suit in February 1985 after a long trial. Lawyers for each side later said legal costs of the suit totaled $12 million, of which $9 million was paid by CBS.
Wallace once said the case brought on depression that put him in the hospital for more than a week. “Imagine sitting day after day in the courtroom hearing yourself called every vile name imaginable,” he said.
In 1996, he appeared before the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging to urge more federal funds for depression research, saying that he had felt “lower, lower, lower than a snake’s belly” but had recovered through psychiatry and antidepressant drugs. He later disclosed that he once tried to commit suicide during that dark period. Wallace, columnist Art Buchwald and author William Styron were friends who commiserated often enough about depression to call themselves “The Blues Brothers,” according to a 2011 memoir by Styron’s daughter, Alexandra.
Wallace called his 1984 book, written with Gary Paul Gates, “Close Encounters.” He described it as “one mostly lucky man’s encounters with growing up professionally.”
In 2005, he brought out his memoir, “Between You and Me.”
Among those interviewing him about the book was son Chris, for “Fox News Sunday.” His son asked: Does he understand why people feel a disaffection from the mainstream media?
“They think they’re wide-eyed commies. Liberals,” the elder Wallace replied, a notion he dismissed as “damned foolishness.” Wallace was born Myron Wallace on May 9, 1918, in Brookline, Massachusetts. He began his news career in Chicago in the 1940s, first as radio news writer for the Chicago Sun and then as reporter for WMAQ. He started at CBS in 1951.
He was married four times. In 1986, he wed Mary Yates Wallace, the widow of his close friend and colleague, Ted Yates, who had died in 1967. Besides his wife, Wallace is survived by his son, Chris, a stepdaughter, Pauline Dora, and stepson Eames Yates.