When the waitress came to take his order, he said: "I'll have the board."
He bought it for $45 and within hours, the menu board -- and the concept of television subtitles -- made their national debut on CBS.
Part showman, pure storyteller, the irascible and iconoclastic Hewitt peppered his conversations with four-letter words, vivid imagery and allusions to Hollywood formulas -- many of the same elements that have come together to form the look and feel of 60 Minutes.
"I feel like I'm living a sort of movie life," he said to me in 2004 trying to explain his worldview. "I've always seen my life through the movies. I mean, I grew up with the movies. To this day, I'm not sure that you're here, and I'm here, and this isn't a movie. I mean that really -- I'm just such a child of the movies."
Hewitt's rise at the network was meteoric, but not without bumps. In 1965, at the age of 32, he was fired as executive producer of Cronkite's nightly newscast by Fred Friendly, another legendary figure who was then president of CBS News.
"Friendly called me one day and he said, 'Don, the Cronkite news is not big enough for you -- you're so much bigger than that. I'm going to take you off the nightly news and have a special unit.'" One of his new tasks was to rethink how the network presented documentaries.
"Now, I'm stupid enough to believe all that," Hewitt continues, "So, I leave Friendly feeling great, and I walk into the office of Bill Leonard, who's the vice president of CBS News and also my pal, and I say, 'Bill, guess what? Friendly just told me the evening news is not big enough for me, and he wants me to have a special unit all my own. Isn't that great?'"
"And Leonard looks up from his desk and says, 'Kid, you just got fired.'"
In his CBS memoirs, "In the Eye of the Storm," Leonard says Friendly felt Hewitt's "talent lacked depth and intellectual commitment." But true to form, Hewitt attacked his new assignment with his usual enthusiasm -- and invented "60 Minutes."
Until 1968, most television documentaries were long, evenly paced and often dull. "As I studied the ratings," Hewitt says, "I saw that no matter what network a documentary was on and what it was about, each and every one -- good, bad or indifferent -- got the same share of the audience: 8 percent. So I thought, what if we made a program that was multi-subject and packaged reality as attractively as Hollywood packages fiction?"
To create his new show, Hewitt looked beyond television. He patterned "60 Minutes" after "Life" magazine, which packaged sociology and pop culture as successfully as it's ever been done.
"You can look in Marilyn Monroe's closet, if you're also willing to look in Robert Oppenheimer's laboratory," Hewitt says. "The secret is to put them together -- but with Marilyn Monroe on the cover. Do heads of state, but put them together with George Burns or Lena Horne or Jackie Gleason," he adds, naming some of "60 Minutes" most celebrated celebrity profiles.