Tenacious and aggressive, Mike Wallace has made a name for himself over the past 40 years as arguably TVUs toughest interviewer.
“Mike Wallace, Then and Now, a CBS News Special,” airing Wednesday, will recapture some of Wallace’s top stories and legendary interviews. The special will cover WallaceUs television news career, beginning on CBS in 1950 to his current assignment on “60 Minutes,” which he has co-anchored the past 22 years.
Wallace talked about his life in TV with Susan King.
Q. It must have been an adventure doing TV doing when it was in its infancy.
Back in the early, early days at CBS, I did a program called “Mike and Buff,” with my then-wife, which was an interview broadcast. I also did news for CBS. Those were the days when you could do almost anything. You didn’t have to confine yourself exclusively to news. It was an adventure. Everybody was experimenting. Everybody was trying to find out what it was we could do.
My show “All Around Town” was the first time anyone had taken live cameras to the George Washington Bridge, the Statue of Liberty or the wine cellar at 21. It was three times a week in the afternoon, and we would see what was happening, interview people who worked there and spectators.
Q. You left CBS to go to the Dumont Network.
I left CBS in 1955 and came back in 1963. In 1956, I was doing the 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. news (for Dumont). We organized our own news department and we had one camera crew and one field editor.
My then-partner, a fellow by the name of Ted Yates, came up with the notion of something called “Night Beat.” It was an interview show, but with a big difference. Interviews by and large then had been ritual minuets. A microphone was planted in the flowers on the table between the two people and you would ask bland questions.
He (Yates) insisted that we do a good deal of research, ask abrasive, certainly irreverent, questions. We went on from 11 to 12 at night and would have twoguests. If one guest was not very good, you would just go and get rid of that one and go on to the other. It struck a nerve. Suddenly it hit in New York and everybody paid attention to it. Everybody started to watch.
Among those who watched was ABC who said, “Let’s bring it over here.” So “Night Beat” became “The Mike Wallace Show” in 1957. It was only on a half-an-hour once a week. It did well, but ABC wasn’t happy with some of it because we got them into trouble.
Q. What type of trouble?
The late columnist Drew Pearson charged that John F. Kennedy did not write “Profiles in Courage.” That upset Joe Kennedy, Jack’s father, who demanded that they apologize.
Q. How did “60 Minutes” happen?
It was (producer) Don Hewitt’s. He talked to Harry Reasoner and me about co-anchoring. Harry was going to be the white hat and I was going to be the black hat. We put together a pilot which nobody thought would go any place. For one reason or another, it caught on. We weren’t hugely popular to begin with. We were on Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. opposite “Marcus Welby” and the “NBC Tuesday Night Movie.” We were up against tough competition and then we moved to Friday and then finally to Sunday.
They put us on 6 p.m. Sunday night and it turned out that was the perfect time. It was about 1974 that we began to take hold in America. It gave us five years to get ourselves together.
Q. What are your feelings about the new magazine shows such as “Hard Copy” or “Inside Edition”?
I tell you something. You edit your television viewing the way you edit your reading of books, magazines and newspapers. I see “Hard Copy” and I see some good stuff and then I see some stuff that’s not so good. “Inside Edition” gets better all the time. “PrimeTime Live” is finding its way. They have gotten rid of the audience, they have gotten rid of the self-consciousness about going live and they have put Diane (Sawyer) and Sam (Donaldson) in separate cities.
Q. Do you have a favorite interview or one that was the most difficult?
I think probably the interview with Vladimir Horowitz is my favorite. It was more than an interview, it was a profile. He was an innocent and had never done anything of this sort before.
One of the most difficult was the Ayatollah because the hostages had just been taken two weeks before. He was like (Iraqi’s Saddam) Hussein in that he used the questions only as an opportunity to say whatever he wanted to say no matter what the question was.
Q. You have been described as the toughest interviewer on TV. Do you feel that’s true?
No. Back in the early days I was, but no one was asking tough questions. You don’t have to be tough if you have done your homework and the person who you are interviewing respects your homework and understands your homework. Then you are going to get the information out.
“Mike Wallace, Then and Now, a CBS News Special” airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. on CBS.