Mike Wallace dies at 93; ‘60 Minutes’ pioneer
As the self-described “black hat” of television’s premier newsmagazine “60 Minutes,” Mike Wallace crafted a persona of a probing reporter known for his often caustic questioning of sometimes reluctant guests on the program.
Beginning in 1968, as one of the first hosts of the enduringly popular news show, he circled the globe, displaying his charm and wit and asking sometimes barbed, always penetrating questions of kings and presidents, business magnates and bureaucrats, entertainers and cultural personalities.
Wallace, who had triple bypass heart surgery in early 2008, died Saturday at a care facility in New Canaan, Conn., the CBS network announced. He was 93.
Of the roughly 800 pieces the pioneering correspondent did for “60 Minutes,” two stood out the most for him, Wallace told the Associated Press in 2006.
One showed his tender side as Wallace persuaded piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz to pound out “Stars and Stripes Forever” in 1977. The other, in 1979, showed Wallace’s tough side as he became the first Western reporter to interview Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after more than 50 Americans were taken hostage in Tehran. To Khomeini’s face, Wallace quoted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as calling him a lunatic.
“I figured what was he going to do, take me as a hostage?” Wallace said. “The translator looked at me as if I were a lunatic.”
When he interviewed Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan in 2000, Wallace set an incendiary tone: “You don’t trust the media; you’ve said so. You don’t trust whites; you’ve said so. You don’t trust Jews; you’ve said so. Well, here I am.”
“So what?” Farrakhan responded.
Wallace so specialized in the hard-hitting search for skulduggery that beer magnate Joseph Coors once quipped: “The four most frightening words in the English language are ‘Mike Wallace is here.’”
The comment was adapted into an advertisement, and Wallace displayed a framed copy in his office.
Barbara Walters, a formidable interviewer and a competitor at ABC, offered a telling compliment on the 1997 special “Mike Wallace Remembers”: “The best interviewer in all of television — past, present and probably future — is Mike Wallace.”
The veteran broadcaster stepped down as a full-time correspondent in 2006, when he was 88. He made occasional appearances after that, culminating with his final interview in January 2008, with baseball pitcher Roger Clemens.
“60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt — who died in 2009 — told People magazine in 2006: “If they were allowed to put plaques up at CBS for the three journalists who would stand out, they would be Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace.”
Jeff Fager, the show’s current executive producer, told The Times in 2006, “I don’t think there would be a ’60 Minutes’ if Don hadn’t found Mike. Mike was never afraid to say what he thought.”
Wallace’s unapologetic style made for splashy, often emotional interviews — and the occasional dust-up.
The controversy that most affected Wallace grew out of a 1982 “CBS Reports” documentary he narrated on the Vietnam War. The report stated that Gen. William Westmoreland had inflated enemy casualty figures to maintain support for the unpopular war. Westmoreland sued CBS and Wallace for $120 million but dropped the suit months into the trial.
“The Westmoreland affair, professionally and personally, was one of the most difficult times of my life,” Wallace told the Chicago Tribune in 1989. “It was just devastatingly difficult because my integrity was put to question, and as a reporter, that’s the single most important thing you’ve got.”
The 1984 trial triggered Wallace’s first bout of clinical depression, and he tried to kill himself by swallowing sleeping pills. He publicly acknowledged the suicide attempt during a “60 Minutes” tribute to him in 2006.
With the support of Mary Yates, a longtime friend who would become his fourth wife, Wallace got the help he needed to treat his depression. He began seeing a psychiatrist and taking antidepressants, Wallace wrote in his 2005 memoir, “Between You and Me.”
In 1995, Wallace sparred with CBS executives over the network’s initial refusal to air his report on tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand. The episode became the subject of the 1999 film “The Insider,” which alleged that CBS News delayed airing the report because it feared a debilitating lawsuit.
Born Myron Leon Wallace on May 9, 1918, in Brookline, Mass., he was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Frank and Zina Wallace. His father ran a wholesale grocery business.
At the University of Michigan, Wallace wandered into the school’s broadcast center and found his metier. After graduating in 1939, Wallace got jobs in radio in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Detroit and was a communications officer in the Navy for three years during World War II.
At Chicago’s WGN radio in the 1940s, he got his first opportunity to do one-on-one interviews, the format that was to be his life work and earn him 21 Emmys, five DuPont-Columbia journalism awards and five Peabody Awards.
He married college sweetheart Norma Kaphan, and they had two sons, Peter and Christopher. After divorcing in 1948, he wed Buff Cobb, an actress he met while interviewing her on WGN.
The couple moved to New York and CBS where they had an early-1950s radio and television talk show, “Mike and Buff.” The show ended in 1953, two years before the marriage did.
His next marriage, to artist Lorraine Perigord, lasted 28 years.
In 1986, he wed Yates, the widow of his longtime producer Ted Yates, who was killed in 1967 covering the war in the Middle East. She survives him, as do his son Chris, stepdaughter Pauline Dora, stepsons Eames and Angus Yates, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Wallace started doing commercials in the mid-1950s, which later caused news executives to question his credibility as an objective reporter. One of his first contracts was to promote Procter & Gamble’s Golden Fluffo shortening.
In 1955, he landed a TV news anchor job with the Dumont network’s New York affiliate. The next year, Wallace faced his first guest, New York Mayor Robert Wagner, on the pioneering interview show “Night Beat.”
The program “was a radical departure from the usual pablum of radio and television interviews,” Wallace wrote in his memoir. It was “nosy, irreverent, often confrontational.”
Critics started calling him “Mike Malice.”
In its second season, the show began airing weekly as “The Mike Wallace Interview” on ABC.
Wallace faced his first defamation suit in 1957 on the ABC program when his guest, mobster Mickey Cohen, “filled the air with an outburst of vicious slander” against then-Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker, Wallace wrote in his memoir. Parker settled his $2-million suit for $45,000.
After that, Lloyd’s of London agreed to insure the show only if a lawyer sat across from Wallace during interviews holding cue cards printed “be careful,” “stop” or “retreat.”
Because of friction with ABC executives, Wallace left the network in 1958 and returned to local television in New York and a weekday interview show.
He covered the 1960 presidential race for Westinghouse and did an around-the-world interview series that introduced him to Vietnam.
In 1961, Wallace had a talk show called “PM East” for Westinghouse and was still regularly doing commercials, for Parliament cigarettes and others.
The death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in a hiking accident in Greece in 1962 made Wallace vow to devote himself solely to serious journalism.
Peter had hoped to pursue a news career. Wallace’s younger son, Chris, also went into broadcast journalism and is the host of “Fox News Sunday.”
In 1963, Wallace returned to CBS as a correspondent. He reported from Vietnam and covered the 1968 presidential campaign of Richard Nixon, who asked him to be his White House press secretary.
He turned down Nixon after CBS President Frank Stanton warned that it would ruin him for any future news career.
Instead, Wallace helped found “60 Minutes,” the show that would be his enduring showcase.
The “60 Minutes” clock first ticked on nationwide television Sept. 24, 1968, hosted by Harry Reasoner and Wallace.
The hosts were “the perfect fit — the guy you love and the guy you love to hate,” Hewitt told The Times in 2006.
By its third season, the show had moved to Sunday evenings, where it — and Wallace — stayed. By 1978, “60 Minutes” ranked among the top 10 programs in the country, a position it held for 23 seasons.
Other “60 Minutes” correspondents made names for themselves — including Dan Rather, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer — but Wallace remained “the heart and soul” of the broadcast, Bradley said in the 2006 “60 Minutes” tribute. He also became the first CBS correspondent to work beyond 65.
Wallace’s 1975 interview with former Secret Service agent Clint Hill had no equal in terms of “power and poignancy,” Bradley said in the broadcast. Hill had climbed onto John F. Kennedy’s car in Dallas seconds after the president was shot in 1963.
After Hill said, “It was my fault,” Wallace responded by saying, “Ohhh. No one has ever suggested that for an instant.” When Wallace pointed out Hill’s bravery, he replied, “Mike, I don’t care about that. If I had reacted just a little bit quicker. And I could have, I guess. And I’ll live with that to my grave.”
The Hill interview was a favorite, Wallace told Newsday in 2002, as were his conversations with Malcolm X, who said months before his death that he feared that his enemies were plotting his assassination; Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom he talked to seven times; and actress Shirley MacLaine, with whom he sparred about reincarnation.
He insisted his interview subjects knew what they were getting into, often describing a “chemistry of confidentiality” that took hold during the process.
On the CBS salute, correspondent Steve Kroft turned the tables on Wallace, pointedly saying that some people considered him a “grandstander” who could be “egotistical, cruel.”
Wallace paused to lick his lips, stammered a little, and said, “Well, I gotta plead guilty, I suppose.”
Oliver is a former Times staff writer.
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