Star interviewer on CBS News' '60 Minutes' for decades
This May 8, 2006 file photo shows Mike Wallace, longtime CBS "60 Minutes" correspondent, during an interview at his office in New York. Wallace, famed for his tough interviews, died Saturday. He was 93. — Photo by The Associated Press
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 the first man hired when late CBS news producer Don Hewitt put together the staff of "60 Minutes" at 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.
The top 10 streak was broken in 2001, in part due to the onset of huge-drawing rated reality shows. But "60 Minutes" remained in the top 25 in recent years, ranking 15th in viewers in the 2010-11 season.
During the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, he asked Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini - then a feared figure - what he thought about being called "a lunatic" by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Khomeini answered by predicting Sadat's assassination.
Late in his career, he interviewed Russian President Vladimir Putin, and challenged him: "This isn't a real democracy, come on!" Putin's aides tried to halt the interview; Putin said he was the president, he'll decide what to do.
"Many people who weathered a Mike Wallace interview grew to respect him greatly and, you know, have great regard for him because I don't recall anybody ever saying to me, 'He took a cheap shot' or 'He did the obvious,' or that he was, you know, playing some kind of game," Fox News Channel Chairman Roger Ailes said on Sunday. "He actually was trying to serve the audience, and that's what made him great."
He was equally tough on public and private behaviour. In 1973, with the Watergate scandal growing, he sat with top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman and read a long list of alleged crimes, from money laundering to obstructing justice. "All of this, Wallace noted, "by the law and order administration of Richard Nixon."
The surly Ehrlichman could only respond: "Is there a question in there somewhere?"
In the early 1990s, Wallace reduced Barbra Streisand to tears as he scolded her for being "totally self-absorbed" when she was young and mocked her decades of psychoanalysis. "What is it she is trying to find out that takes 20 years?" Wallace said he wondered.
"I'm a slow learner," Streisand told him.
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 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 longstanding 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.
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.
His wife declined to comment Sunday.
National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report.