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'60 Minutes' interrogator Mike Wallace dies

By David Bauder

Associated Press

Published: Monday, April 9 2012 1:15 a.m. MDT

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.

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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