NEW YORK >> Within five months of each other, two of the men who helped make “60 Minutes” the most distinctive news show on television have died.
First it was Andy Rooney, the cantankerous commentator who died last November, a month after delivering the last of his show-closing essays. Late Saturday night, it was Mike Wallace, the hard-charging interviewer who frequently led “60 Minutes” and gave it journalistic heft with a showman’s flair.
Rooney made it to age 92. Wallace beat him by a year, although he spent the latter stage of his life in the New Canaan, Conn., care facility where he died.
“More than anyone else he was responsible for the continuing success of ‘60 Minutes,’ “veteran correspondent Morley Safer, a longtime colleague and frequent competitor of Wallace’s in chasing after big stories, said on Sunday’s show. “We are all in his debt.”
60 Minutes” plans an extended tribute to Wallace next Sunday.
Wallace had such a fearsome reputation as an interviewer that “Mike Wallace is here to see you” were among the most dreaded words a newsmaker could hear.
Wallace didn’t just interview people. He interrogated them. He cross-examined them. Sometimes he eviscerated them pitilessly. His weapons were many: thorough research, a cocked eyebrow, a skeptical “Come on” and a question so direct 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 made “60 Minutes” compulsively watchable, television’s first newsmagazine that became appointment viewing on Sunday nights. His last interview, in January 2008, was with Roger Clemens on his alleged steroid use. Slowed by a triple bypass later that month and the ravages of time on a once-sharp mind, he retired from public life.
During the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, Wallace 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 fruitlessly to halt the interview.
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 wondered.
“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. Wallace once went after a medical laboratory offering Medicaid kickbacks to doctors in this fashion.
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.”
Fager’s first contact with Wallace — as a young producer he had to shorten one of Wallace’s stories for another broadcast — left him more frightened than anything he had to do professionally to that point. Eventually, Fager became one of Wallace’s producers and, as the top producer at “60 Minutes,” the one who had to delicately convince a man who never wanted to retire that it was time to hang it up.
“I was scared of him and intimidated by him,” he said. “He knew it and he would just make you more miserable. That was Mike. He always had a twinkle in his eye, and even if you were intimidated by him, it was hard not to love him.”
ABC’s Diane Sawyer, a former “60 Minutes” colleague, said Wallace’s energy and nerve set the show’s pace. “He bounded through the halls with joy at the prospect of the new, the true, the unexpected,” she said.
His prosecutorial style was admired, imitated, condemned and lampooned. In a 1984 skit on “Saturday Night Live,” Harry Shearer impersonated Wallace, and Martin Short played weaselly, chain-smoking attorney Nathan Thurm, who becomes comically evasive, shifty-eyed and nervous under questioning.
Wallace was hired when Hewitt put together the staff of “60 Minutes” at its inception in 1968. The show wasn’t a hit at first, but worked its way up to the top 10 in the 1977-78 season and remained there year after year. Among other things, it proved there could be big profits in TV journalism. It remains the most popular newsmagazine on TV.
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. CBS News initially cut Wigand’s interview for fear of being sued.
In all, his television career spanned six decades, much of it 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. In the mid-1950s he hosted “Night Beat,” a series of one-on-one interviews that first won Wallace fame for his tough style.
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. He anchors “Fox News Sunday” on the Fox network.)
Wallace had a short stint reporting from Vietnam and took a sock in the jaw while covering the tumultuous 1968 Democratic 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.
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,” that accused Westmoreland and others of deliberately underestimating enemy troop strength during the Vietnam War.
Westmoreland dropped the libel suit in 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 said the case plunged him into a depression that put him in the hospital for a week.
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 antidepressants. He later disclosed that he once tried to commit suicide during that dark period.
Wallace was born Myron Wallace on May 9, 1918, in Brookline, Mass. He began his news career in Chicago in the 1940s, first as a radio news writer for the Chicago Sun and then as a 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, a stepdaughter, Pauline Dora, and stepsons Eames and Angus Yates.