Mike Wallace, `60 Minutes’ interrogator, dies

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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.

“I’m a slow learner,” Streisand told him.

“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.”

As a young producer at the CBS’ New York affiliate, Fager first dealt with Wallace when he had to cut down one of the reporter’s stories to 90 seconds for a broadcast.

“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.”

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. Christopher Plummer starred as Wallace and Russell Crowe as Wigand. Wallace was unhappy with the film, in which he was portrayed as caving to pressure to kill a story about Wigand.

Operating on a tip, The New York Times reported that “60 Minutes” planned to excise Wigand’s interview from its tobacco expose. Wigand had signed a nondisclosure agreement with his former company, and the network feared that by airing what he had to say, “60 Minutes” could be sued along with him.

The day the Times article appeared, Wallace downplayed the gutted “60 Minutes” story as “a momentary setback.” He soon sharpened his tone. When the revised report finally aired, he told viewers that he was “dismayed that the management at CBS had seen fit to give in to perceived threats of legal action.” The full report eventually was broadcast.

In addition to his Emmys, Wallace won five DuPont-Columbia journalism and five Peabody awards.

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