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Mike Wallace

Death of Mike Wallace

May 9, 1918 - April 7, 2012
New Haven, Connecticut | Age 93

'60 Minutes' star interviewer, dies at 93

Obituary

DAVID BAUDER, The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Within five months of each other, two of the men who helped make "60 Minutes" the most distinctive news show on television have died.

First it was Andy Rooney, the cantankerous commentator who died last November, a month after delivering the last of his show-closing essays. Late Saturday night, it was Mike Wallace, the hard-charging interviewer who frequently led "60 Minutes" and gave it journalistic heft with a showman's flair.

Rooney made it to age 92. Wallace beat him by a year, although he spent the latter stage of his life in the New Canaan, Conn., care facility where he died.

"More than anyone else he was responsible for the continuing success of '60 Minutes,' "veteran correspondent Morley Safer, a longtime colleague and frequent competitor of Wallace's in chasing after big stories, said on Sunday's show. "We are all in his debt."

"60 Minutes" plans an extended tribute to Wallace next Sunday.

Wallace had such a fearsome reputation as an interviewer that "Mike Wallace is here to see you" were among the most dreaded words a newsmaker could hear.

Wallace didn't just interview people. He interrogated them. He cross-examined them. Sometimes he eviscerated them pitilessly. His weapons were many: thorough research, a cocked eyebrow, a skeptical "Come on" and a question so direct it took your breath away.

He was well aware that his reputation arrived at an interview before he did, said Jeff Fager, CBS News chairman and Wallace's long-time producer at "60 Minutes."

"He loved it," Fager said Sunday. "He loved that part of Mike Wallace. He loved being Mike Wallace. He loved the fact that if he showed up for an interview, it made people nervous. ... He knew, and he knew that everybody else knew, that he was going to get to the truth. And that's what motivated him."

Wallace made "60 Minutes" compulsively watchable, television's first newsmagazine that became appointment viewing on Sunday nights. His last interview, in January 2008, was with Roger Clemens on his alleged steroid use. Slowed by a triple bypass later that month and the ravages of time on a once-sharp mind, he retired from public life.

During the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, Wallace asked Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini — then a feared figure — what he thought about being called "a lunatic" by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Khomeini answered by predicting Sadat's assassination.

Late in his career, he interviewed Russian President Vladimir Putin, and challenged him: "This isn't a real democracy, come on!" Putin's aides tried fruitlessly to halt the interview.

In 1973, with the Watergate scandal growing, he sat with top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman and read a long list of alleged crimes, from money laundering to obstructing justice. "All of this," Wallace noted, "by the law-and-order administration of Richard Nixon."

The surly Ehrlichman could only respond: "Is there a question in there somewhere?"

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.

"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."

Fager's first contact with Wallace — as a young producer he had to shorten one of Wallace's stories for another broadcast — left him more frightened than anything he had to do professionally to that point. Eventually, Fager became one of Wallace's producers and, as the top producer at "60 Minutes," the one who had to delicately convince a man who never wanted to retire that it was time to hang it up.

"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."

ABC's Diane Sawyer, a former "60 Minutes" colleague, said Wallace's energy and nerve set the show's pace. "He bounded through the halls with joy at the prospect of the new, the true, the unexpected," she said.

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. CBS News initially cut Wigand's interview for fear of being sued.

In all, his television career spanned six decades, much of it at CBS. In 1949, he appeared as Myron Wallace in a show called "Majority Rules." In the early 1950s he was an announcer and game show host. In the mid-1950s he hosted "Night Beat," a series of one-on-one interviews that first won Wallace fame for his tough style.

After holding a variety of other news and entertainment jobs, including serving as advertising pitchman for a cigarette brand, Wallace became a full-time newsman for CBS in 1963.

He said it was the death of his 19-year-old son Peter in an accident in 1962 that made him decide to stick to serious journalism from then on. (Another son, Chris, followed his father and became a broadcast journalist. He anchors "Fox News Sunday" on the Fox network.)

Wallace had a short stint reporting from Vietnam and took a sock in the jaw while covering the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. But he didn't fit the stereotype of the Eastern liberal journalist. He was a close friend of the Reagans and was once offered the job of Richard Nixon's press secretary. He called his politics moderate.

The most publicized lawsuit against him was by retired Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who sought $120 million for a 1982 "CBS Reports" documentary, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," that accused Westmoreland and others of deliberately underestimating enemy troop strength during the Vietnam War.

Westmoreland dropped the libel suit in 1985 after a long trial. Lawyers for each side later said legal costs of the suit totaled $12 million, of which $9 million was paid by CBS. Wallace said the case plunged him into a depression that put him in the hospital for a week.

In 1996, he appeared before the Senate's Special Committee on Aging to urge more federal funds for depression research, saying that he had felt "lower, lower, lower than a snake's belly" but had recovered through psychiatry and antidepressants. He later disclosed that he once tried to commit suicide during that dark period.

Wallace was born Myron Wallace on May 9, 1918, in Brookline, Mass. He began his news career in Chicago in the 1940s, first as a radio news writer for the Chicago Sun and then as a reporter for WMAQ. He started at CBS in 1951.

He was married four times. In 1986, he wed Mary Yates Wallace, the widow of his close friend and colleague Ted Yates, who had died in 1967. Besides his wife, Wallace is survived by his son, a stepdaughter, Pauline Dora and stepsons Eames and Angus Yates.

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Associated Press Television Writer Frazier Moore, Deepti Hajela, former Associated Press writer Polly Anderson and National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press, The Associated Press

Reaction to the death of longtime "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace:

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"He loved being Mike Wallace. He loved the fact that if he showed up for an interview, it made people nervous. ... He knew, and he knew that everybody else knew, that he was going to get to the truth. And that's what motivated him." — CBS News chairman and "60 Minutes" executive producer Jeff Fager.

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"His extraordinary contribution as a broadcaster is immeasurable and he has been a force within the television industry throughout its existence. His loss will be felt by all of us at CBS." — CBS Corp. President and CEO Leslie Moonves.

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"Mike was an old school journalist and one of the most astute people I've ever met. The news business will be a different place now, and our lives will be forever changed for having known him." — Former first lady Nancy Reagan.

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"Mike was a great friend and a mentor to me. He even gave me a compliment once, and he was one of the real pioneers in television journalism." — "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer.

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"Wallace took to heart the old reporter's pledge to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." — "60 Minutes" correspondent Morley Safer, in an essay about Wallace.

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"I don't recall anybody ever saying to me, 'He took a cheap shot' or 'he did the obvious,' or that he was, you know, was playing some kind of game. He actually was trying to serve the audience and that's what made him great." — Fox News Channel Chairman Roger Ailes.

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"Every Sunday night, America tuned in to see what questions he would ask and who would be exposed to his hard-charging quest for the truth. Mike's tough questioning inspired generations of journalists." — ABC News President Ben Sherwood.

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"Mike's energy and nerve paced everyone at "60 Minutes." His was the defining spirit of the show. He bounded through the halls with joy at the prospect of the new, the true, the unexpected." — "ABC World News" anchor Diane Sawyer, who worked at "60 Minutes" with Wallace.

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"Mike Wallace was from the beginning and for many years, the heart and soul of '60 Minutes.' In that role he helped change American television news. Among the ways that this change was for the better: TV news became more investigative, more aggressive and relevant. Mike was sharp and quick of mind, a fierce competitor and a master interviewer." — former "CBS Evening News" anchor Dan Rather.

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"We named our book 'Heat and Light' because that's what Mike was all about — heat meaning drama and light meaning new and useful information." — Beth Knobel, a Fordham University professor and former CBS News colleague of Wallace's who co-wrote with him the 2010 book "Heat and Light: Advice For the Next Generation of Journalists."

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Key dates and events in the career of "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace:

— 1940s: Wallace begins his news career as radio news writer for the Chicago Sun.

— 1949: Wallace appears in a show called "Majority Rules" using his given name, Myron Wallace.

— 1951: Wallace begins working at CBS.

— 1950s: "Night Beat," a series of one-on-one interviews that first brought Wallace recognition for his style of questioning, begins airing on a local New York station. It later airs on ABC.

— 1959: "The Hate That Hate Produced," a highly charged program that Wallace helped create about the Nation of Islam that was later criticized as biased and inflammatory, airs.

— 1963: Wallace becomes a full-time newsman for CBS.

— 1968: Wallace is hired when late CBS News producer Don Hewitt puts together staff of "60 Minutes."

— 1970: Wallace wins first Peabody award at "60 Minutes" and second of five overall for the show's general excellence.

— 1977-78: "60 Minutes" reaches top 10 in ratings for first time, where it remains for years.

— 1979: During the Iranian hostage crisis, Wallace asks Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini what he thought about being called "a lunatic" by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Khomeini answers by predicting Sadat's assassination.

— 1982: CBS airs a documentary that accuses retired Gen. William C. Westmoreland and others of deliberately underestimating enemy troop strength during the Vietnam War. Westmoreland sues Wallace and the network for libel. He later drops the lawsuit but only after years of legal wrangling. Wallace says the case brought on depression that put him in the hospital for more than a week.

— 1999: "The Insider," a film based in part on a 1995 "60 Minutes" story about tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, premieres. Christopher Plummer stars as Wallace, who was unhappy with the film, in which he was portrayed as caving to pressure to kill a story about Wigand.

— 2006: Wallace retires as a regular correspondent for the show.

— 2008: "60 Minutes" airs Wallace's last interview, with Roger Clemens on his alleged steroid use.

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The Associated Press, The Associated Press

Some of the many memorable moments in Mike Wallace's career at "60 Minutes":

— Asking Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 his reaction to being called "a lunatic" by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

— Challenging Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2005: "This isn't a real democracy, come on!"

— When late-night TV host Johnny Carson expressed sympathy for a newsmaker who was an alcoholic, Wallace asked: "It takes one to know one?"

— Airing a videotape in 1998 showing assisted suicide advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian injecting a terminally ill patient with lethal drugs.

— Becoming the subject of a movie, "The Insider," after CBS cut an interview with tobacco company whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand from a 1995 story for fear of being sued. Months later, Wigand's interview was aired.

— Being sued by Vietnam-era Gen. William Westmoreland for libel after a 1982 documentary that alleged the general misled the American people. The lawsuit was withdrawn, but plunged Wallace into depression.

— Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad turned the tables on Wallace in a 2006 interview. "I hear this is your last interview," the president said. Replied Wallace: "What do you think? Is it a good idea to retire?" (

— Questions Barbra Streisand's many years of psychoanalysis: "What is she trying to find out that takes 20 years?"

— Almost anytime Wallace prefaced a query with, "Forgive me, but...," that's when you knew to expect a sharp shot to the gut.