Mike Wallace, '60 Minutes' star interviewer, dies

By Frazier Moore

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, April 8 2012 8:50 a.m. MDT

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. CBS said 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 story appeared, Wallace downplayed the gutted story as "a momentary setback." He soon sharpened his tone. Leading into the revised report when it aired, he made no bones that "we cannot broadcast what critical information about tobacco, addiction and public health (Wigand) might be able to offer." Then, in a "personal note," he told viewers that he and his "60 Minutes" colleagues were "dismayed that the management at CBS had seen fit to give in to perceived threats of legal action."

The full report eventually was broadcast.

Wallace maintained a hectic pace after CBS waived its long-standing rule requiring broadcasters to retire at 65. In early 1999, at age 80, he added another line to his resume by appearing on the network's spinoff, "60 Minutes II." (A similar concession was granted Wallace's longtime colleague, Don Hewitt, who in 2004, at age 81, relinquished his reins as executive producer; he died in 2009.)

Wallace amassed 21 Emmy awards during his career, as well as five DuPont-Columbia journalism and five Peabody awards.

In all, his television career spanned six decades, much of it spent 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 for programs such as "What's in a Word?" He also found time to act in a 1954 Broadway play, "Reclining Figure," directed by Abe Burrows.

In the mid-1950s came his smoke-wreathed "Night Beat," a series of one-on-one interviews with everyone from an elderly Frank Lloyd Wright to a young Henry Kissinger that began on local TV in New York and then appeared on the ABC network. It was the show that first brought Wallace fame as a hard-boiled interviewer, a "Mike Malice" who rarely gave his subjects any slack.

Wrote Coronet magazine in 1957: "Wallace's interrogation had the intensity of a third degree, often the candor of a psychoanalytic session. Nothing like it had ever been known on TV. ... To Wallace, no guest is sacred, and he frankly dotes on controversy."

Sample "Night Beat" exchange, with colorful restaurateur Toots Shor. Wallace: "Toots, why do people call you a slob?" Shor: "Me? Jiminy crickets, they 'musta' been talking about Jackie Gleason."

In those days, Wallace said, "interviews by and large were virtual minuets. ... Nobody dogged, nobody pushed." He said that was why "Night Beat" ''got attention that hadn't been given to interview broadcasts before."

It was also around then that Wallace did a bit as a TV newsman in the 1957 Hollywood drama "A Face in the Crowd," which starred Andy Griffith as a small-town Southerner who becomes a political phenomenon through his folksy television appearances. Two years later, Wallace helped create "The Hate That Hate Produced," a highly charged program about the Nation of Islam that helped make a national celebrity out of Malcolm X and was later criticized as biased and inflammatory.

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.

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