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How a Hollywood-beautiful, hard-cursing fly fishing guide helped get Bill Whitaker his ’60 Minutes’ job

"60 Minutes" correspondent Bill Whitaker in his CBS office in New York.
(Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

Since becoming a full-time correspondent on “60 Minutes,” Bill Whitaker has traveled to Cremona, Italy, to report on Stradivarius violins; to France for a story on newly discovered Picassos, and to Myanmar to sit with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet after two years of frequent passport-stamping, he’s still captivated by the 7th Avenue line subway that takes him from his home in Harlem to his CBS News office on the West Side of Manhattan.

“For your $2.75 you get a show,” the former Angeleno said as he prepared for the news magazine’s 49th season. “It’s the catwalk of humanity, walking up and down the platform and cars. I haven’t been here long enough for it to be an irritant. It’s kind of cool.”

Observing people is a passion for Whitaker, 65, who has made the most of his chance to do it in-depth on “60 Minutes,” where pieces running 10 minutes or longer still prevail in the era of viewers devouring video snippets on their smartphones. In his second season, he had 20 original stories on the program, the most of any correspondent.

Always among the network’s most prolific reporters, Whitaker was a fixture on the “CBS Evening News” for more than 30 years, the last 20 out of the Los Angeles bureau. His office has framed courtroom sketches from the O.J. Simpson trial, the story that put him in living rooms across the country every night for a year. (“It consumed my life,” he said.) He’s covered presidential campaigns, profiled show business legends, reported live from the field on disasters in Japan and Haiti, and during the early stages of the war in Afghanistan. According to one longtime colleague: “Anywhere he went he brought calm and strength.”

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"I was content": Bill Whitaker on his life in Los Angeles as a CBS correspondent. But after changing coasts for "60 MInutes," he's loving New York's "catwalk of humanity."
“I was content”: Bill Whitaker on his life in Los Angeles as a CBS correspondent. But after changing coasts for “60 MInutes,” he’s loving New York’s “catwalk of humanity.”
(Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times )

When based in Los Angeles, where much of the city is making the slow commute home when the “CBS Evening News” airs, Whitaker was able to live in relative anonymity for someone who was on television all the time. His two children graduated from Harvard-Westlake, and his home in the Hollywood Hills was a short drive from the CBS bureau.

“I was content,” he said in the mellifluous voice that now often gets him recognition wherever he goes. “I was happy with my work and with my life. I did think I was going to retire out of the Los Angeles bureau.”

But his life and his coast would change after “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager asked him in 2013 to do a story for Showtime’s “60 Minutes Sports.” Rather than pick the low-hanging fruit of interviewing a well-known pro athlete, Whitaker wanted to come up with “something different.” He headed to Belize and then British Columbia for two weeks to profile fly fishing guide April Vokey.

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“She’s Hollywood beautiful, curses like a sailor, can drink with the best of them and catches fish better than anyone else there,” he said. Soon Whitaker was back in Fager’s office to talk about joining the venerable Sunday edition of the program.

“April Vokey is the reason I’m sitting at this desk,” he said. A framed poster on the wall of his office has her quote from the piece: “Adventure may hurt you but monotony might kill you.”

Fager wishes he brought Whitaker on as a full-time correspondent sooner. But as the most coveted job in television news, openings at “60 Minutes” come through only involuntary departures. The deaths of long-timers Bob Simon and Morley Safer, who cut back on his output in his final years, created the need to add another veteran to the ranks.

Bill Whitaker in a sound booth at the offices of "60 Minutes."
Bill Whitaker in a sound booth at the offices of “60 Minutes.”
(Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times )
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When filling the job, Fager also knew he had some work to do on the diversity front. Before Whitaker joined the program in 2014, the program did not have a full-time African American correspondent since the death of Ed Bradley in 2006.

“We lost Ed and we didn’t have a person of color,” Fager said. “It was a secondary concern but it was an important one. Bill’s great reporting came first. He’s a great storyteller with an incredible body of work from covering the world as a reporter. He’s beginning what will be a great long run.”

Only at “60 Minutes” can an executive say that about a 65-year-old.

Whitaker, who looks at least a decade younger, grew up in a home where TV news held a near-sacred status.

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“My father — he was a welder in a shipyard outside of Philadelphia — was a news junkie,” he said. “He’d come home from work, take a shower and sit down in front of the television and it was like church. We kids all had to be quiet so he could watch the news. The news at the time was important. It was the Vietnam War. The civil rights movement. Watergate.”

Whitaker brought that sense of responsibility to the viewer when he joined the “CBS Evening News.” But once he got to “60 Minutes,” he did need to work on one aspect of his presentation.

“I was a notoriously bad dresser,” he said. Seeing the now sartorially splendid Whitaker when he often opens “60 Minutes,” it’s hard to believe he required a fashion intervention by a longtime producer and a photographer at the Los Angeles bureau to replace his uniform of blue jackets and khakis with designer suits and ties. They took him to a shop at Sunset Plaza where Whitaker now drops in every time he is back in Los Angeles to visit.

After all, he’s just getting started.

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‘60 Minutes’

Where: CBS

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio


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