Sunday, April 8, 2012
Remembering Mike Wallace
There was consternation at the 1974 TV Critics convention at Los Angeles' Century City hotel.
Word got out that Mike Wallace was in town --he was going to do a story on us. Fear and panic ensued.
Wallace who died on April 8, aged 93, had that kind of effect on a lot of people.
He was TV's equivalent to a pit bull, a relentlessly abrasive journalist who had reduced Barbra Streisand to tears and had to duck when Burt Lancaster threatened to knock him out.
He did it longer than anyone else of his generation and he was still at it in 2006 when he locked horns with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"I thought you had retired," gulped the normally acerbic president when Wallace started tossing his verbal grenades.
In 1974 wallace was at the top of his game with the Top rated U.S. series 60 Minutes. He'd been the first one to be hired for the new series by producer Don Hewitt.
And more than any one else he defined the context of a great 60 Minutes interviewer.
Bette Davis grumped Wallace had gotten out of her all sorts of stuff she'd wanted to hide.
In 1974 Wallace was out to expose TCA whose members (but not me) willingly took huge payments from the networks, charging their hotel rooms, beverages and even evening theater tickets in return for squishy soft stories about the fall network fare.
I remember at one evening event around the pool I'd been chatting with some of my American counter parts when a long "mike boom" sudden;y appeared from behind a bushy knoll. TV critics scattered and upon investigation I found a CBS sound man and Wallace giggling behind the bushes.
Wallace always went after the "red meat" he later explained when a select few of us sat down to dinner with him --I hasten to add all paid their way that night.
In his first ever TV gig in 1949 titled Majority Rules he was still being called "Myron" Wallace.
By 1951 he'd graduated to "Mike" in a live morning show for CBS titled Two Sleepy People opposite then wife Buff Cobb which ran for two seasons and was the first morning interview series on CBS.
I remember watching him a little bit later on a night time ABC show called Night Beat in which he'd lock horns with the likes of Lancaster or Tennessee Williams. His style was visceral and he later admitted it made for great TV drama but elicited little actual information.
The point is Wallace was never part of the charmed circle that helped launch TV for CBS icon Edward Murrow. Wallace was hot in a cool medium and as long as Murrow reigned CBS would never have hired him for its presyigious news division.
In 1962 son Peter died tragically in an accident and Wallace later said he became introspective and tried for a less confrontational style.
From 1963 to 1966 he anchored the CBS Morning News and I remember he told us that night it had wrecked his sleep patterns for decades.
On 60 Minutes he reigned supreme. When he talked to Roger Clemens in 1979 about steroid dependancy 60 Minutes' ratings soared. In 1979 there was an awesome minute of silence when he asked Ayatollah about being labelled a lunatic by Egypt's president Anwar Sadat. Finally Khomeini answered by correctly predicting Sadat's assassination.
When Wallace challenged President Putin about whether or not the Russian system was democratic Russian aides tried to shut down the interview.
That night at dinner we discovered a different Wallace who liked to tell stories about himself. asked if Lancaster was really going to dek him he joked "I was getting ready to cuck!"
Two years later I was on the set of 60 Minutes in New York hanging out with co-anchor Morley Safer, a proud Canadian. On a monitor wee watched coverage of the Jimmy Carter inaugural and Safer was astonished at the nasty exchanges between Harry Reasoner and his new co-anchor Barbara Walters.
Just then we heard a heated discussion between Wallace and Hewitt erupt into a shouting match.
The thing to remember is Wallace really cared and was ready to fight for every story every step of the way.
When Diane Sawyer joined the show he pointedly said she did not adapt well to 60 Minutes distinctive style.
In 1982 General William Westmoreland launched a $120 million law suit against CBS alleging reporting by Wallace had been biased. The suit did go to trial where Wallace became rattled on the stand.
It was eventually settled out of court with CBS assuming $9 million in law fees but Wallace sank into a deep depression.
He battled out of it and began talking openly about the medical problems faced by seniors.
In fact he flew into Toronto to be interviewed by Helen Hutchinson in a magnificent interview piece I'm hoping still exists in the archives.
It was a case of two great veterans sharing stories about the pressures they often faced.
Wallace suffered from heart problems and underwent bypass surgery in 2008. He was married four times and son Chris works for Fox News.
I think he'll be remembered as a indefatigable fighter, a guy who showed all of us how to report a story in huiman terms.