60 Minutes creator and Cronkite producer Don Hewitt died today at age 86
When you first entered Don Hewitt's office at CBS News' famed West 57th St. building, it felt a little like getting an audience with a Rat Pack-era celebrity -- as if you were talking over the state of news with Frank Sinatra or something.
That's because Hewitt's corner office -- which I visited in 2004 as the legendary TV producer was leaving the newsmagazine he invented, 60 Minutes -- was packed with memorabilia and photos from his storied career.
There were also two chairs which looked up slightly at his massive desk, which Hewitt proudly noted came from hardnosed former CBS chairman William S. Paley. "They don't ride low on purpose," he cracked, in a line I noted in my story back then. "Let's just say they've had a lot of use, kid."
Hewitt, the man whose career stretched from producing the first half-hour TV newscast to creating the most successful TV newsmagazine in history, died today from pancreatic cancer at age 86, according to CBS.
He had left 60 Minutes five years ago, eased into the title of executive producer for CBS News. Though he insisted when we met that he had no idea why the change happened, he was characteristically blunt about the meaning of his new position.
"What does that mean? I have no idea. But it's a nice title . . . good for getting tables in restaurants," he said, laughing. "You don't want to be an 'I used to be.' "
His list of innovations is long and amazing: producing the first TV newscast, featuring Douglas Edwards in 1948, producing the first half-hour TV newscast with Walter Cronkite in 1963; producing classic newsman Edward R. Murrow's shows See It Now and Person to Person; producing the first televised presidential debate, in 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, inventing the use of cue cards for anchors to read stories while looking at the camera and inventing 60 Minutes.
I noted back in 2004 that Hewitt dreamed up the idea in 1968, merging the concept of Murrow's two shows into a new type of program - a magazine on television - with the substance of the New York Times and the sizzle of Look magazine. See his own words on Murrow here.
"Holy s--, I said, that's the answer," said Hewitt, laughing loudly. "If you put 'high Murrow' (See It Now) and 'low Murrow' (Person to Person) in the same broadcast, you've got something. You can look in Marilyn Monroe's closet, if you're also willing to look in Robert Oppenheimer's laboratory."
His passing, combined with Cronkite's death a few weeks ago, marks the final chapter in an era of TV journalism lions who defined the most basic techniques and concepts used across the industry.
Click below to read excerpts from CBS' detailed obituary:
TELEVISION NEWS GIANT DON HEWITT DIES AT 86
Don Hewitt, recognized as a father of modern television news and the creator of the medium's most successful broadcast, 60 MINUTES, died of pancreatic cancer today. He was 86 and had homes in Manhattan and Bridgehampton, New York, where was with family at the time of death.
Hewitt was executive producer of CBS News, the title he took when he stepped down from his post as executive producer of 60 MINUTES in 2004.
Hewitt’s remarkable career in journalism spanned over 60 years, virtually all of it at CBS. As a young producer/director assisting at the birth of television news, it was usually Hewitt behind the scenes directing legendary CBS News reporters like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, using a playbook he had to write himself. He played an integral role in all of CBS News’ coverage of major news events from the late 1940s through the 1960s, putting him in the middle of some of history’s biggest events, including one of politics’ seminal moments: the first televised presidential debate in 1960.
Hewitt produced and directed coverage for the three networks of the debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy, an event that instantly transferred the political king-making powers print news once held to a new and more powerful medium where appearances mattered. Critics have long maintained that Kennedy won the debate because he looked better. As Hewitt recalled in many interviews, he offered makeup to Kennedy first, who refused. Nixon, following Kennedy’s cue, also refused. But the suntanned Kennedy was a vigorous contrast to Nixon, whose pasty complexion put his five o’clock shadow in high relief.
Hewitt also directed the first network television newscast, featuring Douglas Edwards, on May 3, 1948. He was the executive producer of the first half-hour network newscast when the “CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite” became the first to go to a 30-minute format on Sept. 2, 1963. Among Hewitt’s innovations was the use of cue cards for newsreaders, the electronic version of which, the TelePrompTer, is still used today. He was the first to use “supers” – putting type in the lower third of the television screen. Another invention of Hewitt’s was the film “double” – cutting back and forth between two projectors – an editing breakthrough that re-shaped television news. Hewitt also helped develop the positioning of cameras and reporters still used to cover news events, especially political conventions.
Hewitt had seemingly done it all for broadcast news when he topped those achievements by producing his magnum opus, the television news magazine 60 MINUTES – a new concept that changed television news forever and became the biggest hit in the medium’s history. “His real monument is 60 MINUTES,” said another broadcasting legend, the late Roone Arledge, when he presented Hewitt with the Founder’s Emmy in 1995. “He is truly an innovator in this business…[the news magazine] is an innovative format no one had done before. It’s been copied all over the world…He’s been a leader in our industry. He has inspired all sorts of people,” said Arledge.
Hewitt’s idea for 60 MINUTES was to break up the traditional hour documentary into a three-segment magazine – a Life of the airwaves. It would work if he and his team could “package an hour of reality as compellingly as Hollywood packages an hour of make-believe,” Hewitt often recalled. His first step was to pick a “white hat” and a “black hat.” Hewitt put the black hat on the grand inquisitor, Mike Wallace, and made the avuncular Harry Reasoner the white hat to launch his news magazine on Sept. 24, 1968. 60 MINUTES became a top-20 hit in 1977. The next year, it was a top-10 hit, a rank it would reach 23 straight seasons – a record no other program ever approached. Two years later, in 1980, it was the number one program, a feat it would achieve five times – a record only matched by “All in the Family” and “The Cosby Show.”
Hewitt always had stock answers to questions about what 60 MINUTES’ secret was. He often told journalists, “It’s four words every child knows: Tell me a story.” But he also admitted it was the talent of his staff, saying he never hired anyone who wasn’t smarter than himself.
Hewitt liked to say that 60 MINUTES’ success was not the best thing to happen to the small screen. Especially later in his life, he railed about how his news magazine changed television for the worse. Hewitt began to say publicly that “behind every news magazine there is a failed sitcom” – the networks were using the format to cover their mistakes, not the news.
Good journalism could also exonerate the innocent, and 60 MINUTES did this many times over the years. When pressed for 60 MINUTES’ finest hour, Hewitt cited the Lenell Geter story in 1983. Geter, a young man sent to jail for life for a robbery in Texas, was freed after Morley Safer's report discredited evidence and used eyewitnesses to prove he was innocent.
60 MINUTES’ lowest point, said Hewitt, was the Jeffrey Wigand story, the interview with the highest-ranking tobacco executive to turn whistleblower that was held back by CBS management in fear of a $10 billion lawsuit that could have bankrupted the company. The initial spiking of the interview, in which Wigand revealed tobacco executives knew and covered up the fact that tobacco caused disease, led to an unusual 60 MINUTES segment. A portion of it, with Wigand disguised, was broadcast, followed by an unprecedented rebuke of management read on the air by Mike Wallace. A few months later in February 1997, CBS allowed the Wigand interview to be broadcast. A film about the incident, “The Insider,” was made in 1998. Hewitt said at the time that he had no choice but to comply with management, or quit in protest, opting instead to “fight another day.” In a 1998 documentary about him, “Don Hewitt: 90 MINUTES on 60 MINUTES,” broadcast on the PBS series “American Masters” for his 50th anniversary at CBS News, he allowed that he wasn’t proud of his actions during this episode.
Hewitt’s boldness in the highly competitive news business was legend. He once became a deputy sheriff to get closer than his competition to the visiting Nikita Khrushchev. And in perhaps the most publicized incident, Hewitt found a lost copy of NBC’s coverage playbook at the 1964 Republican convention and pocketed it with the intention of using it to scoop his competitors. He gave it back after an NBC producer, it is said, threatened to throw him out a hotel window. Hewitt’s colorful style clashed with the staid nature of another CBS News legend, Fred Friendly, and led indirectly to Hewitt’s creation of 60 MINUTES.
Friendly was named president of CBS News in 1964 and, in December of that year, a few months after the NBC playbook incident, he removed Hewitt from his role as executive producer of the “CBS Evenin g News With Walter Cronkite." Despite the fancy title Friendly bestowed on him -- Executive Producer of Live and Taped Documentaries -- Hewitt knew he was off the front lines. Exiled with time on his hands, Hewitt then slowly emerged with the idea for what would become the most successful television program in history. About a year later, he began showing anybody who would take the time the 60 MINUTES pilot comprised of three hour-long documentaries cut down to 20 minutes each that he said would be a new news format, a magazine for television.
If there was an achievement he was as proud of as 60 MINUTES, it was his Frank Sinatra documentary. Broadcast in 1965, it was the most intimate portrait of his life and art that Sinatra ever allowed. Hewitt said he got the reluctant entertainer to agree to it, even though he could not pay him any money, by baiting him with a challenge: Could he sit and answer questions from Cronkite -- the same newsman American presidents had sat down with?
Hewitt wrote two books, Tell Me a Story: Fifty Years and 60 Minutes in Television (Public Affairs, 2001), and Minute by Minute (Random House, 1985), about 60 MINUTES.
Hewitt won every major award numerous times and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1990. For the past several years, he had been involved in a variety of broadcast projects, mostly outside of CBS, including producing a primetime documentary about the Radio City Music Hall’s annual Christmas show.
He is survived by his wife of 30 years, Marilyn Berger; two sons, Steven and Jeffrey and his wife Nancy; daughter Lisa Cassara and her husband, William; stepdaughter Jilian ChildersHewitt, adopted by Hewitt, who was the daughter of his second wife, Frankie (nee Teague) Hewitt by her first husband Bob Childers.; three grandchildren: Balin Hewitt, Connor and Jack Cassara. Frankie Hewitt and Hewitt’s first wife, Mary Weaver, both predeceased him.
Funeral services will be private