Barbara Walters has a way of running her fingers through her streaked hair and turning it into a topknot, so she looks like Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate.” Just as seductive. When she stands alone in a corner outside her ABC office, waving goodby to a visitor, she seems as vulnerable as Anne Bancroft was to Dustin Hoffman at the top of the movie. It’s little things like that, like the personal poems that she writes for guests at her dinner parties, that draw people to her.
Like the time she showed up with her cousin Shirley at Sally Field’s house in Tarzana, and started making coffee. “Maybe that’s the power of Barbara Walters,” said Sally Field the other day. “You reveal things while you are making coffee. It’s in her nature to ask emotional questions, but because she’s sympathetic, you go deeper. She identifies with you, this woman who’s been courted by royalty. So you go beyond the fear threshold.”
If Hollywood power is a tree with six branches--banking, studio, talent, attorney, agent and media--then Barbara Walters is a major branch of a major branch. Editor Tina Brown, in the current Vanity Fair, goes so far as to claim that Walters’ specials have “replaced the cover of Time as the ultimate accolade of superstardom.” Certainly it’s the season of Barbara Walters. Mike Tyson. Ed Meese. Robin Givens. Kitty Dukakis. Jesse Jackson . But it’s her celebrity specials--"the tail that wagged the dog,” Walters calls them--that put her in the stratosphere. It’s her New Yorker’s slant on Hollywood-at-home that’s made the difference.
To understand stars, it helps to be one yourself, of course, and Walters has always known that. It’s partly why she had to become as famous as the people she interviews. Only then could she be the one to draw the line-- how far can you go with a star? She drew that line--like it or not--a dozen years ago, on her first ABC special. Walters touched Jon Peters’ knee in mid-interview. “Why don’t you two get married?” she asked Peters and his then-companion Barbra Streisand. Edward R. Murrow didn’t do that: Barbara Walters had drawn the new line. And she toes that line--between revealing a star and hurting a star--very carefully.
“You know what Hollywood is like,” she said, in the middle of a week of being observed. “It’s this big.” She curled a thumb and forefinger into a circle the size of a small doughnut. “If stars were really unhappy with the interviews--one would have said to the other: ‘Don’t do her.’ It would have all dried up. On the other hand, if we did them all so happy-happy-happy, why would the audience watch? If I do it very superficially, why should the audience care?
“On the other hand,” Walters went on, “if I do it so the celebrity comes away sweating and they say"--here Walters’ voice deepened--" 'Boy, was that a chore!’ then no press agent would tell their client to do it. And the stars themselves are going to say, ‘I don’t want to do her.’ No one is going to come back again if they are damaged and hurt on what is really a long interview. You can’t be a hit-and-run driver.”
Striking a Balance
In person, Barbara Walters has what Truman Capote called lift . That means her co-workers never look tired because she never looks tired. “If she has limits, I haven’t seen them yet,” said Martin Clancy, the “20/20" segment producer who has worked most closely with Walters. “You have to run to keep up with her.” Lift is a quality that draws people out rather than turning them off. On “20/20,” Walters can remember “people who won’t come back and be interviewed again. But rarely does that happen on the specials. And we’ve been doing them 12 years. And yet, they’re not superficial. You have to strike that balance. You have to draw them out without causing pain.”
“Look,” she said in the middle of an interview in her 9x12 windowed “20/20" office, “I never thought I’d last this long. . . . We’re told in television that you are finished at 35. Is there anyone more vital than Mike Wallace at 70? With more animal energy?”
Walters pointed to a needlepoint pillow on the curved wool sofa that read: “I REALLY MEAN IT. NEXT YEAR I’M GOING TO SLOW DOWN.” But the pillow is one thing in the room that doesn’t feel sincere.
“I keep thinking it’s going to get quieter, and sometimes it does,” Walters said, fiddling with a club sandwich that had been delivered mid-interview. She has an attention to detail that even her friends gasp at. At her Christmas dinner in Aspen last year, every guest got a small gift that applied to that person. Her former producer, Phyllis McGrady, remembers “how Barbara never has to stop tape on an interview, ever. In the middle of doing Richard Pryor, his wife and son came on--nobody knew he had a wife and a son at that point--and Barbara just went on with the interview. Nothing fazed her.”
You don’t get the whole Walters in one interview. You get it by observing and listening--and asking her to connect with her own past lives. “I often begin an interview with childhood,” she said, and then agreed to talk about her own. When people criticize her for being on-the-air intimate, in a show-business sense, they are picking at her strongest quality. It may be a backstage intimacy, but it’s no less real for coming from a show business family. She was a child of nightclubs (her father, Lou Walters, founded the Latin Quarter in New York City). She watched her mother listen to Sophie Tucker’s confidences about her son and she saw Sophie Tucker without makeup. “I saw the beautiful show girls without makeup too. I’ve never been celebrity struck,” Walters said. “I may appear to be--and I may be admiring with certain actors--but it’s never been a big deal for me to be with stars. Because they would be in the house. I knew they had problems.”
Neither of her parents fit the saloon cliches: “My father looked like an accountant and he was a voracious reader. This man who ran a nightclub collected first editions. He had no business sense at all. He was in the tradition of the Ziegfelds, where you do beautiful shows and you die broke. My mother--a woman who never drank, even a sherry--probably would have been happier marrying a doctor. The family always said, ‘Why did you marry this man?’ He was funny, sensitive and a wonderful writer. It was tough, we moved all the time. But my life wasn’t show business. The schools and my friends weren’t show business. We just happened to have Thanksgiving at the Latin Quarter. Doesn’t everybody?”
It was “the insecurity of my father’s life” that propelled Walters beyond Sarah Lawrence College. “I always felt that I had to take care of myself, and maybe them too. And by the time I was 23, my worst fears had come true. I did have to be responsible. But, yes, being around show business did make me feel, ‘I have to do it.’ I knew show business wasn’t all gorgeous. But I also knew how gorgeous parts of it could be.”
There was another motivating factor: her older sister Jacqueline who was handicapped, and who died last year. “So now I can talk about her,” Walters said softly. “Having a handicapped sister gave me an understanding I never would have had. The people who were wonderful to her, the people who weren’t wonderful to her. It creates its own wall that you live behind. ‘Don’t get to know me too well, because if you do, you might make fun of my sister.’ ”
There were tears, a pause, and then Walters collected herself. “If not for my sister, I might have grown up much tougher. I might have hung out at the Latin Quarter. I wouldn’t have had pain. Superficially, I was a princess. We did live in penthouses. There are people who don’t know me who think I was a rich New York Jewish princess-slash-show business. With a successful father who ran this glamorous place.”
And gave her a mink coat when she was 11?
“Yup! . . . But my values are the same values as my friends’. And my friends are still my friends from high school.”
“I’ve known her since university days,” says her book agent Mort Janklow. “I have to say fame has changed her less than anyone I know.” To find a Walters foe who will tell you a flaw, you have to go a distance--almost back to Frank Blair, who called her “remote” when she left “The Today Show” a thousand years ago. “If there’s a flaw , maybe it’s that she over analyzes things,” says a New York friend off-the-record. “But that works in her favor, too. And yours. You always get the phone call, you always get the lunch. She’s attentive.”
Example: At a recent TV Guide cover shoot (for the issue that hits stands tomorrow, highlighting the two-hour retrospective 50th Special, airing Nov. 29) Walters quietly walked over to star hair stylist Jose Eber and asked him about his mother. “She didn’t know my mother had passed away. But how many people ever bother to ask about your family?” Eber questioned. “Famous people away from their work can be boring. But Barbara is more interesting away from the work. If there’s a shell, it’s protective, and only for professional reasons.”
The Stars in Primetime
At one point, Walters said, “It’s fun now--with ’20/20,’ for the political interviews, and the specials for celebrities"--but you knew how long it took to become fun. And how much attention must constantly be paid.
“With ’20/20,’ you do have to be there every week,” she said; the implication was that rival “60 Minutes” offers more flexibility. “They work terribly hard, but they don’t have to show up every week. We do. Which means you can’t do six pieces and take a week off. Or take long weekends.”
And then there are the yearly trio of specials--Walters finally got ABC to go for three and not four a year, but she would prefer to only do two. “The specials have no relationship to this,” she said, almost clarifying how her time is spent. Across town she has a separate “Specials” office (“I couldn’t tell you where it is unless I strained myself”), and a small staff. ABC would give her the moon (and a big staff) if she would do more than three specials a year. The “Barbara Walters Specials” average a happy 32 share and a 19 rating over the past four years.
These days there’s only a hint of a schism between Walters the newswoman and Walters the stars’ confidante--and the blur has become a fact of life. People are so used to Walters bridging the two worlds--news and entertainment--that she does anything she wants. Nobody at ABC even sees the specials until they air. “And sometimes not even after they air!"But in 1976, nobody at ABC, or anywhere else, was much interested in Barbara Walters talking to movie stars in prime time.
“I was the first person who told her to forget it,” says Walters’ friend, William Morris executive Sue Mengers. “It’s a tough job to get stars. I said to her, ‘Who do you think you are?’ Of course, I also begged her not to go on safari with Merv (Adelson, Walters’ husband, the Lorimar co-founder) because she wouldn’t have a hairdresser. She went anyway and washed her hair in buckets. And it cemented the relationship with Merv. So again I was wrong. She and (editor) Helen Gurley Brown gave me a party in New York and--in front of people like Donald Trump and Malcolm Forbes--Barbara recited a litany of bad advice I’d given her! Luckily she never listened to me.”
“Yes I did,” corrected Walters. “I took what Sue said as a challenge, a dare--and out of guilt, Sue got me Streisand for the first show.” The first special was the last time Walters gave away control. Streisand had “final cut,” so to speak. “Barbra got to see the tape the night we did the interview,” Walters said. “The same night! There on a sofa were Barbra and Jon Peters and Sue (Mengers) and (manager) Marty Erhlichman, with everybody having an opinion. I never gave anyone else control again ever. When Burt Reynolds asked for it, a few months after the first show, I said no.”
“If Garbo called, I’d retire,” Walters said, fully aware of the pull of her specials. She went after Cary Grant forever, and there are a handful of other escapees. But in a world where Barbara Walters can get any star she wants--except for maybe Warren Beatty (they once didn’t hit it off on “The Today Show”)--it has to be infuriating: Mike Tyson and Robin Givens and Donna Rice are the Walters interviews with the highest numbers.
“Is this the way I’m going to go down in history?” she said one afternoon, half kidding. Yet there is obviously some ambivalence about being controversial--part of her likes it. “I watched (‘Nightline’ anchor) Ted Koppel the other night,” she said offhandedly. “And he said, ‘Tomorrow--Mike Tyson and Barbara Walters, Round 2!’ I thought, ‘Why didn’t we think of that?’ ”
There’s a more subtle point: Prime-time audiences won’t sit still in large numbers for political interviews. An example: Walters’ “longest and most difficult” 1977 mano-a-mano with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. “It ended at 1:35 in the morning, after four hours, with him making us grilled-cheese sandwiches. That interview was played all over the world, and it came in last in the ratings! We had chemistry, but the audience didn’t. . . . Sometimes even her co-workers don’t know which hat Walters is wearing. Even her friends kid her about her “apples"--the New York friends--and her “oranges"--the Los Angeles friends--but Walters knows who’s who in her life. Tales of loyalty among pals are so extraordinary as to be unprintable. A journalist would sound as if he was schnookered. In a business where one’s enemies don’t reveal themselves--one’s friends do. “She pays more attention to her friends, and closer attention than anyone I know,” says Wendy Goldberg, wife of 20th Century Fox president Leonard Goldberg, who threw Walters her 1986 wedding to Merv Adelson on two days’ notice.
“To understand Barbara,” says her writer friend Mickey Ziffren, “you have to know that she likes how her world works now. But if life became a mom-and-pop store, Barbara could clean the back room herself. She remembers who she was ; it’s a reason why she’s lasted.” The assumption, then, is that it’s Walters herself on the phone with stars, knocking herself out to get them. That she has the names because she approaches the names herself.
“I will approach them,” she answered, hesitantly. “But more often I’ll talk to the agent or manager. What you don’t know about are the ones who turn us down. . . . Everybody thinks I pick up the telephone and get right through. Sometimes it takes us months to get through.”
Example: Katharine Hepburn. “The funny thing about Hepburn is--we tried for ages to get Hepburn--this is one where I called myself. Endlessly. It was planned for a Tuesday. We had worked for so long! On Sunday, or Saturday, the League of Women Voters called to ask if I would moderate the debate between Reagan and Mondale. . . .
“So I called Katharine Hepburn in Hartford, and said, ‘I have to do this debate Tuesday. Could we do it Thursday instead?’ Well, she was so thrilled to be out of it, it took us six months to get her back. She said, ‘What a wonderful excuse. This is the best thing that ever happened!’ This is a woman who doesn’t like to do interviews. She didn’t like the first one we did because we said she has palsy, which she doesn’t. The mention ruined the whole interview for her. But the fact is she does very few interviews, and she did us a second time.”
So there are people Walters still has to sell on the idea? “Uhm-hmm,” Walters said. The name Meryl Streep arose. “If something happened, and I heard that she might want to do it, I’d call her in a minute. But I don’t think I would go after her again. I’ve tried a couple of times. I have such respect for her. She really doesn’t want to do it. She’s uncomfortable with the idea. I can understand that. I’m not going to badger her.”
Sometimes the recipe of stars gets scrambled before the show appears. Example: Richard Pryor. “There was a whole story that Richard Pryor had AIDS. He looked very thin. I called Pryor. I like Pryor. He likes me. We have a kind of trust. We’ve had a sort of strange series of interviews. I said, ‘You should come on “20/20" and address this.’ In the middle of the interview, his new wife and son appeared, and it turned into a whole different kind of interview. This was a 15- to 18-minute interview. This was too long for ’20/20.’ So we thought we’d do it for the specials.”
That particular special was supposed to consist of Michael Douglas, Bette Midler, and Patrick Duffy. “Patrick Duffy had to be done then because he was talking for the first time about the murder of his parents. Bette Midler had to be done then because it was the start of her whole new success. The only one we could hold was Michael Douglas. So we called Michael Douglas and said, ‘Could we postpone this?’ Now somebody else might have said, ‘We just won’t run it.’ But we had taken his time . . . so we had to then do a January special because we had promised Michael Douglas. So we did two specials almost back-to-back.”
Does Walters worry about being used? “We are all used!” she said. “Whether it’s ‘World News Tonight’ or Tyson or Dukakis or whatever. They’re using us to get their point across; we’re using them to help our program. The Duvaliers thought this would be the time to express themselves. They have never done an interview since, and I don’t blame them. But without using how would all these morning shows stay on the air? Every morning, there is somebody plugging their book, their record album. That is the fare--the f-a-r-e--of these shows. Is Bryant Gumbel being used? Is Charlie Gibson? It works both ways.”
One subtle theme to the 50th special might be how she became a kind of video Cinderella: The transformation of Walters from unexceptional-looking cub journalist to blonded best-dressed cover girl--that’s a story. “She worked like a dog for years,” said her friend columnist Liz Smith. “And slowly over the years she became glamorous. I find that fascinating.”
Walters jumped right in when asked about appearances: “Every time I go on the air and look good, I get all kinds of questions about when did I have my face done? When I don’t look terribly good, people say, ‘Why doesn’t she have her face done?’ ” Walters leaned across the small round table that serves as her desk. “I think there are a lot of things I have learned. My hair is lighter. My hair is better. I now have the same makeup and hair person all the time. I never had that before, never thought about it.
“When I got married, my husband said, ‘Your lighting is awful. Every Hollywood star always worries about their lighting.’ I didn’t, and now I do. We have a lighting person all the time. I now have lighting from the floor. It shines up"--she demonstrated with her hands--"and it takes away all of this stuff which you can see when you are with me in person. I never knew about all this. I went to England a few years ago to do (author) Barbara Cartland, and she came with her own lights.”
Walters watched and learned. Seeing her over a period of a week is to see a lesson in wardrobing: a beige sueded T-shirt with a Harris tweed skirt, for an interview, with a double strand of pearls linked by extraordinary onyx pieces. It’s not just lighting--it’s costuming too.
On TV, “you don’t see the circles and you don’t see the lines,” as Walters puts it--even if you do see the hair. “I used to do my own hair. I never used to have streaks. I’d color it myself, all one color, and it came out orange. I don’t do that now. I don’t want to spend all this time talking about my face, but yesterday is a good example. We did Teddy Pendergass and they lit it. And I said, ‘Let me take a look.’ I asked them to move some of the lighting. I never used to look at myself that way, never. I now know which side of my face looks best. So now I will be shot from the left side, unless the guest wants to be shot from the left side. And I’m older. I’ve been doing this a long time now. . . .” She sighed. There was wear and tear in her voice if not in her face.
“There’s wear and tear in my heart,” she said with slight self-deprecation. “In my heart and soul.”
And simultaneously, there’s an awareness of success: “I don’t think it’s all going to be over. I used to think it would all be over tomorrow. I’m not going to be working forever--but I don’t think any of this is luck, by the way. I think it’s work.”
One afternoon in a break from taping “20/20" introductions, she reached below the console and picked up a phone. “Hi. Is there anything I should know? We’re on a break. What happened to all my other stuff? Was it picked up?”
At that moment, a bowl of heavily salted cafeteria popcorn arrived, and Walters began to reach for it. “Not too much, Barb,” said Maurie Perl, her ABC press liaison. “Share it, Barb.”
Walters stood up, revealing a pink skirt clashing with a red blazer. To nobody in particular she said, “Six months ago, remember, you promised me a white microphone? You said any minute? I mean a black microphone with this pink suit. . . .”
Hugh Downs excused himself to stretch; he was on the brink of leaving for a three-week, first-time visit to China. Downs on a TV set has to remind an observer of Jack Nicholson in “Broadcast News.” The physical builds and wardrobes and makeups are as close as brothers.
During a break, Downs remembered his first meeting Walters. “1962. It was Barbara’s job, as a ‘Today Show’ writer, to welcome me to the program. She came over to see Ruth (Downs’ wife) and myself, to get some background. She was writing the introduction segment. She did a neat job. . . . Maureen O’Sullivan wasn’t working out as the ‘Today’ girl. Let’s say Maureen was destined to leave, and there was this roster of replacement names. They were looking at tapes of the usual bright beauties. And I said, ‘Why not think about Barbara Walters? Why not develop our own stars?’ They said, ‘Yes, she’s good looking enough, but is she young enough?’ (Walters was 33.) I said, ‘She is, and she has a brain and she can wear clothes.’
“And so they kind of let me introduce Barbara Walters to the air. Then I left NBC before she did, and she came to ABC before I did. And she was not available when I started this show. Now she’s done our two highest-rated shows--Mike Tyson and Donna Rice.”
When Downs started on “20/20,” Walters was in the middle of the most critical power struggle of her career. Her publicized million-dollar shift from NBC to ABC in 1976 almost undid her professionally, but finally remade her as a star. Even her detractors acknowledge the switch as the turning point. The agonizing co-anchoring with Harry Reasoner of “World News Tonight” brought the kind of ratings that kill careers. The million-dollar anchorwoman was an overnight bust.
“What made the difference for me was doing so disastrously at ABC,” Walters insisted, almost proudly. “My having to work my way back. That gave me a feeling about myself I didn’t have before.” It gave her confidence: “When you think it’s the end--when you get fired or something bad happens--sometimes it’s the beginning.”
Walters paused, and with some difficulty said: “I worked hard. I earned this back. I took the bad stuff, and I went off and I did the good interviews, and the good reports.”
It seemed a shame that Barbara Walters still had to justify her success.
“Well . . . I wouldn’t if we weren’t doing this interview,” she said reflectively. “It’s like my talking about my sister. You saw tears a few minutes ago. Ask me about my life today, you’d never see tears. I very rarely talk about those early years because it’s over. It’s done.”
Lots of Questions
At this point, Walters is editing her interviews in her mind as she conducts them. When she sits with a Tom Hanks (a likely candidate for the January 1989 special), she can tell as she listens to him what answers will or won’t get on the air. “Nobody ever asked me that. But, yes, I know when I’m doing it, I’m editing it in my head. Sometimes they go off on a tangent, and I just let it go on. There has to be that moment in the interview when it goes-- bing! And there are times when I think, ‘Hmmm, I never got it. . . .’ ”
She was trying to analyze why her format has worked without becoming tiresome. It may come down to her doing her own grunt work. “I write lots and lots of questions. That’s not to brag, but if you write them yourself, it’s not like somebody giving them to you. They’re in your head, so if it goes off in a different direction, fine. But you’re in control of it yourself. You’re not dependent. So I can tell you that moment in an interview that makes it special, as I’m doing it.”
And if the subjects aren’t special, Walters uses them anyway. Nobody she has taped has gone unused. “To sit down in someone’s house and then say, ‘I’m sorry. It’s so boring we can’t use it.’? First of all, how insulting! Secondly, I should be good enough not to have that happen. Some are better than others. The first interview with Eddie Murphy was a trial for both of us, a tough road.” (It also revealed Walters’ edge: At one point Murphy switched subjects, and said to Walters, “You don’t know where we’re going.” To which Walters replied: “I know where we’re going. We just finished this interview.”) “But the second interview, last year, at his house in New Jersey, we hugged and kissed and he was open and ready.”
The way it works is that Walters tapes less than two hours with any given star. “In Time or Newsweek, I sometimes see they spend eight hours with someone, and it winds up as a one-paragraph box. I think (A), How does the person stand it? and (B), All that for one box? Sometimes we don’t have it in the first hour, and we go on to the second hour.”
Example: Bette Davis. “I made a big mistake with her. The second hour, I realized what the mistake was. I wanted to talk about her career, and she wanted to talk about her book. We don’t usually just plug the book or movie. So the first hour, I asked her all about her films--I’ve seen every Bette Davis movie--and she was unresponsive. The second hour we got the book over with, and everything else was heaven. It taught me a lesson: Get the reason they want to talk over with first.”
Since Walters makes movie stars interesting, it might seem those interviews are somehow emotionally easier than the political interviews. That John Wayne is a truffle compared to a Duvalier or a Khashoggi. “No,” Walters said, “I work harder on the celebrity interviews. John Wayne, by the way, was surprised at how great I thought his house was. He said, ‘Why are you so surprised? We country boys have taste.’ But I work harder on the celebrity interviews. On a political interview, first of all, if you read the papers every day, you don’t have to do that much homework. When you are doing a personality, I have to know almost more than they do. Because you don’t have the controversial questions. You’re not asking them about abortion. And if you do ask them about abortion, who cares? It’s not gonna affect anyone’s life what Bing Crosby or Farrah Fawcett feels about abortion.”
Thus the stars must be treated as stars, and emotions must be stressed. Example: Patrick Swayze. There are viewers who feel Swayze’s tears about his father were manipulated by Walters. She sees it from a slightly different angle. “I have to know so much that when I ask a Patrick Swayze about his father, and he starts to cry--I knew how he felt about his dad. I didn’t know he would cry. But I had read a little something here, a little something there. If I hadn’t done all this homework. . . .
“Look, I don’t know what’s made me--or these shows--successful. There have been other interview shows with wonderful stars, sometimes bigger stars than we’ve had. And it hasn’t worked. And maybe it’s because"--here Walters really paused-- “Maybe they haven’t done the homework that gets that one question. That one moment.”
Ask her if she’s heard the criticism that she sometimes “mediates,” and she responds: “I’ve heard every criticism. But why is that a criticism?” Maybe then it’s a question: Is it Barbara Walters’ role to mediate?
“Well, I will,” she said straightforwardly. “The interviews on the specials are more conversations than on ’20/20.’ The specials interviews are two of us sitting around having a conversation. I will tell them something about me, too. I remember when I went to see Bette Midler, and the baby had been constipated, and the baby had a bowel movement. She was thrilled. I mentioned it, we laughed about it. I would no more mention that on ’20/20'!”
Truman Capote’s theory that to get a good interview the interviewer must also give of himself only works “sometimes,” according to Walters. “What Truman Capote used to do was tell you all about himself, so you would then tell him all about yourself. He would tell you what he did in his private life. I certainly don’t do that. Don’t forget that when you are writing a print interview, you can sit for hours and forget the interviewer is there. But you can’t forget I’m there when I’ve got lights in your face, and cameras whirring, and you perspire.”
Walters went on: “To get these people to forget there are lights--these people who are actors--to get them to be introspective . . . To get that humor? When there’s no audience? Because I tell the crew before the taping, ‘I don’t care how funny they are, I don’t want any laughter. This is between the two of us.’ The audience at home must feel as we feel. And I kick everybody out of the room except the cameraman.”
Walters avoids private time with celebrities before the interview. “On many of the programs, the guest is pre-interviewed. They might not use that, but there’s a sheet with questions and answers. We never do a pre-interview. I need that spontaneity. I don’t think it should be where they walk on and haven’t met me at all, however. That’s scary for me. But I don’t want them saying, ‘As I told you a few minutes ago.’ So I do meet them. I’m in their house. I will say before a taping, ‘Don’t tell me that?!’ Sometimes we’ll finish the interview, and they’ll tell me something, and I’ll want to kill myself. Because I don’t have it on tape. But that’s the chance you take.”
Barbara Walters knows not only the chances but also the limits. She is asked on occasion, not to tackle certain subjects, and she will, on occasion, acquiesce. “I had been told Paul Newman did not want to talk about his son, who died of a drug overdose. Even though he had the Scott Newman Foundation. There was no reason, there was enough else to talk about, it was painful to him--and so I didn’t.”
On the other hand, there was Angela Lansbury “who, because her kids had a (drug) problem, stopped working for two years. She left this country, moved to Ireland. And I didn’t think you could do an interview without mentioning that. So I talked about it. It was painful for her. But I felt that that was intrinsic. Here’s a woman with a big career who gives it up.”
Walters had a qualifier. “Remember, these are guests. These are not people we are paying. These are not politicians who are running for office. These are people who have agreed to be interviewed. . . . If it’s something that’s terribly painful, and I feel I have to ask it--then I won’t do the interview. We’ll say that up-front to the agent.”
Example: Sylvester Stallone, last year. “He wanted to come on, he was having a bad image problem. We said, ‘He’s gonna have to talk about Brigitte (Nielsen, Stallone’s most recent wife).’ His agent said, ‘Oh no.’ I said, ‘Then we can’t do it. I cannot at this point in his career--when he’s had all this sensationalism--do an interview and not ask about it. Thank you and we won’t do it.’ They came back, and said, ‘OK, he will.’ ”
It’s Walters own instincts, but also there’s the audience to consider. “Is the audience going to say, ‘How can she do an interview with this man and not ask Stallone about this enormous breakup?’ I have to, or I don’t do the interview. It’s like Donna Rice: You have to ask the question.”
Walters isn’t anybody’s version of a Hollywood wife. Last month the Los Angeles house she shares with Merv Adelson was photographed in Architectural Digest, but her marriage is something she tries to keep private. “I wouldn’t dream of inviting someone I’ve interviewed, say, for dinner,” she said. “My husband’s best friends are Dick Crenna and Mike Connors. He didn’t even know Sue Mengers until he met me!”
Adelson, the outgoing Lorimar chairman and CEO is now negotiating with Warner Communications to form a new investment company after Warner’s planned acquisition of Lorimar--it’s a complicated merger. In private life the Adelsons are becoming increasingly athletic; in Aspen (where they have a house) he skis and she swims (indoors)--and reads. Both wary of marrying, they finally wed in 1986, on two days’ notice--after much prompting by friends. The courtship was lengthy and friends began to get anxious. Mengers would say to Walters, “Marry Merv already! Who do you think you are, Jackie Bisset?”
“But with Barbara, who’s very disciplined--everything takes a lot of time,” said Walters’ book agent, Mort Janklow. Janklow (whose clients include Nancy Reagan and Jackie Collins) wasn’t kidding. The other day, after much hesitation on her part, Walters concluded a seven-figure deal with Putnam’s Phyllis Grann for her memoirs.
Barbara Walters’ apples and oranges now have one thing in common. They are all wondering where she’ll find the time to write the book.