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Mike Wallace, '60 Minutes' star interviewer, dies

Mike Wallace, the CBS reporter who became one of the nation's best-known broadcast journalists as an interrogator of the famous and infamous on 60 Minutes, died on Saturday (April 7, 2012). He was 93.

On its website, CBS said Mr. Wallace died at a care facility in New Canaan, Conn., where he had lived in recent years. Mr. Wallace, who was outfitted with a pacemaker more than 20 years ago, had a long history of cardiac care and underwent triple bypass heart surgery in January 2008.

A reporter with the presence of a performer, Mr. Wallace went head to head with chiefs of state, celebrities and con artists for more than 50 years, living for the moment when "you forget the lights, the cameras, everything else, and you're really talking to each other," he said in an interview with the New York Times videotaped in July 2006 and released on his death as part of the online feature "The Last Word."

Mr. Wallace created enough such moments to become a paragon of TV journalism in the heyday of network news. As he grilled his subjects, he said, he walked "a fine line between sadism and intellectual curiosity."

His success often lay in the questions he hurled, not the answers he received.

"Perjury," he said, in his staccato style, to President Richard M. Nixon's right-hand man, John Ehrlichman, while interviewing him during the Watergate affair. "Plans to audit tax returns for political retaliation. Theft of psychiatric records. Spying by undercover agents. Conspiracy to obstruct justice. All of this by the law-and-order administration of Richard Nixon."

Ehrlichman paused and said, "Is there a question in there somewhere?"

No, Mr. Wallace later conceded. But it was riveting television.

Both the style and the substance of his work drew criticism. CBS paid Nixon's chief of staff H.R. Haldeman $100,000 for an exclusive (if inconclusive) pair of interviews with Mr. Wallace in 1975. Critics called it checkbook journalism, and even Mr. Wallace conceded later that it had been "a bad idea."

For a 1976 report on Medicaid fraud, the show's producers set up a phony health clinic in Chicago. Was the use of deceit to expose deceit justified? Hidden cameras and ambush interviews were all part of the game, Mr. Wallace said, though he abandoned those techniques in later years, when they became a cliche and no longer good television.

Some subjects were unfazed by Mr. Wallace's unblinking stare. When he sat down with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian leader, in 1979, he said that President Anwar Sadat of Egypt "calls you, Imam — forgive me, his words, not mine — a lunatic." The translator blanched, but Khomeini responded, calmly calling Sadat a heretic.

Mr. Wallace invented his hard-boiled persona on a program called Night Beat. Television was black and white when the show went on the air in 1956, weeknights at 11, on the New York affiliate of the short-lived DuMont TV network.

"We had lighting that was warts-and-all closeups," he remembered. The camera closed in tighter and tighter on the guests. The smoke from Mr. Wallace's cigarette swirled between him and his quarry. Sweat beaded on his subject's brows.

"I was asking tough questions," he said. "And I had found my bliss." He had become Mike Wallace.

Night Beat moved to ABC in 1957 as a half-hour, coast-to-coast, prime-time program, renamed The Mike Wallace Interview.

His career path meandered after ABC canceled The Mike Wallace Interview in 1958. He had done entertainment shows and quiz shows and cigarette commercials. He had acted onstage. But he resolved to become a real journalist after a harrowing journey to recover the body of his first son, Peter, who died at 19 in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962.

"He was going to be a writer," Mr. Wallace said in the interview with the New York Times. "And so I said, 'I'm going to do something that would make Peter proud.' "

He set his sights on CBS News and joined the network as a special correspondent. He was soon anchoring The CBS Morning News With Mike Wallace and reporting from Vietnam.

Mr. Wallace joined the launch of 60 Minutes in 1968. The trademark ticking of the Tag Heuer stopwatch marked the moment.

It was something new on the air: a "newsmagazine," usually three substantial pieces of about 15 minutes each — a near-eternity for TV news. Mr. Wallace and Harry Reasoner were the first co-hosts, one fierce, one folksy. The show was the brainchild of Don Hewitt, a producer who died in 2009.

The show was slow to catch on. Creative conflict marked its climb to the top of the TV heap in the 1970s. Mr. Wallace fought his fellow correspondents for the best stories and the most airtime.

Mr. Wallace and his teams of producers — who researched, reported and wrote the stories — took on American Nazis and nuclear power plants along with his patented brand of exposes.

The time was ripe for investigative TV journalism. Watergate and its many seamy sideshows had made muckraking a respectable trade. By the late 1970s 60 Minutes was the top-rated show on Sundays. For five consecutive years it was the No. 1 show on TV. Mr. Wallace was rich and famous and a powerful figure in TV news when his life took a stressful turn in 1982.

That year he anchored a CBS Reports documentary called "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception." It led to a $120 million libel suit filed by Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968. At issue was the show's assertion that Westmoreland had deliberately falsified the "order of battle," the estimate of the strength of the enemy.

After more than two years of struggle Westmoreland abandoned his suit midtrial, CBS lost some of its reputation, and Mr. Wallace had a nervous breakdown. He attempted suicide with sleeping pills. Later in life he discussed his depression and advocated psychiatric and psycho-pharmaceutical treatment.

Mr. Wallace officially retired from 60 Minutes in 2006, after a 38-year run, at the age of 88. A few months later he was back on the program with an exclusive interview with the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr. Wallace won his 21st Emmy award for the interview.

And he kept working. Only weeks before his 2008 bypass surgery, he interviewed the baseball star Roger Clemens as accusations swirled that Clemens had used performance-enhancing drugs. It was Wallace's last appearance on television, CBS said.

Survivors include his wife, Mary Yates Wallace; his son, Chris Wallace, the TV journalist now at Fox News; a stepdaughter, Pauline Dora; and two stepsons, Eames and Angus Yates.

Key dates in Mike Wallace's career

1940s: Begins his news career as radio news writer for the Chicago Sun.

1951: Begins working at CBS.

1950s: Night Beat, a series of one-on-one interviews that first brought him recognition for his style of questioning, begins airing on a local New York station. It later airs on ABC.

1963: He becomes a full-time newsman for CBS.

1968: He becomes the first man hired when late CBS News producer Don Hewitt puts together staff of 60 Minutes.

1977-78: 60 Minutes reaches top 10 in ratings for first time, where it remains for years.

1982: CBS airs a documentary that accuses retired Gen. William C. Westmoreland and others of deliberately underestimating enemy troop strength during the Vietnam War. Westmoreland sues Wallace and the network for libel. Westmoreland drops the lawsuit after years of legal wrangling. Wallace says the case brought on depression.

2006: He retires as a regular correspondent for 60 Minutes.

2008: 60 Minutes airs his last interview, with Roger Clemens on his alleged steroid use.

Associated Press

Mike Wallace, '60 Minutes' star interviewer, dies 04/08/12 [Last modified: Monday, April 9, 2012 1:31am]
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