By Myrna Oliver, Special to the Los Angeles Times
12:01 PM EDT, April 8, 2012
NEW YORK (REUTERS)
Mike Wallace, who pioneered and then dominated the probing and enduringly popular hallmark TV magazine series "60 Minutes," died Saturday night, CBS announced. He was 93.
Wallace, who had triple heart bypass surgery in early 2008, died in New Haven, Conn., colleague Bob Schieffer said Sunday morning on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Known for his often caustic questioning of sometimes reluctant guests on television's premier newsmagazine show, Wallace became the first CBS network correspondent to work beyond 65 in a medium dominated by young faces.
The veteran broadcaster was already 50 when "60 Minutes" debuted in 1968. He stayed with the newsmagazine for 38 years, stepping down as a full-time correspondent in 2006. He made occasional appearances after that. His final interview, which aired in early 2008, was with baseball pitcher Roger Clemens.
"Let's face it," Wallace, who had a pacemaker and two hearing aids, told People magazine in 2006. "I'm not 85 anymore."
As the self-described "black hat" of "60 Minutes," he circled the globe, displaying his charm and wit and asking sometimes barbed, always penetrating questions of kings and presidents, business magnates and bureaucrats.
Of the roughly 800 pieces he did for the show, two stood out the most for him, Wallace told the Associated Press in 2006.
American news correspondent Mike Wallace of CBS News reports from under his network's banner at t
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 53 American hostages were taken in Tehran. To his face, Wallace quoted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as calling Khomeini a lunatic.
"I figured what was he going to do, take me as a hostage?" Wallace said in the AP story. "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 a "60 Minutes" ad, 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."
"60 Minutes" creator Don Hewitt — who died in August — 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 Los Angeles 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 admitted to the suicide attempt during the "60 Minutes" tribute to him in 2006.
"I wrote a note. And Mary found it," he said, referring to Mary Yates, a longtime friend who would become his fourth wife. "And she found the pills that I was taking on the floor. I was asleep."
With the support of Yates, 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."
He suffered two subsequent bouts of depression when he went off his medication, according to a 2006 Baltimore Sun story. A broken wrist and turning 75 might have contributed to the episodes, he said.
An interest in helping others cope with the illness led Wallace to speak widely about his depression. He became a spokesman for the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression and also appeared in "Dead Blue," a 1998 documentary about depression directed by his stepson, Eames Yates.
As a journalist, Wallace found himself at the center of another controversy while interviewing a Los Angeles banker in 1981 about lien contracts that could cause poor minorities to lose their homes. Thinking he was off-camera, Wallace made a wisecrack about reading contracts over "watermelon or the tacos" that enraged the black and Latino communities. Wallace publicly apologized, noting he had a reputation for ethnic jokes, including cracks about his own Jewish race.
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 a shelf of Emmys.
He also started a family, marrying college sweetheart Norma Kaphan, who gave him his only children, 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, stepson Eames Yates and grandchildren.
Partly because he was sensitive about childhood acne scars, Wallace had planned to pursue a career in radio but found himself on television in 1949 — as an actor playing a police lieutenant — in the short-lived ABC show "Stand by for Crime." He also acted on Broadway in the 1954 comedy "Reclining Figure."
He 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 Interviews" on ABC.
Wallace faced his first libel 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; actor Burt Lancaster walked off the program. But Wallace 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.
He thought, "Hey, do something that would make Peter proud of you," Wallace told The Times in 2006.
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 as a correspondent to CBS. 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 said in the 2006 Times article.
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.
"When we found our audience, it was the middle of the civil rights revolution, then Vietnam and Watergate, and we simply got behind the scenes to a lot of those stories, whereas the rest of television did not," Wallace said in 2003 on "Larry King Live."
Other "60 Minutes" correspondents made names for themselves — including Dan Rather, Morley Safer and Ed Bradley — but Wallace remained "the heart and soul" of the broadcast, Bradley said in the "60 Minutes" tribute. Bradley died months later.
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 Los Angeles Times staff writer.
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