CBS News legend Mike Wallace, the 60 Minutes’ pit-bull reporter whose probing, brazen style made his name synonymous with the tough interview — a style he practically invented for television more than half a century ago — died last night. He was 93 and passed peacefully surrounded by family members at Waveny Care Center in New Canaan, Conn., where he spent the past few years. He also had a home in Manhattan.
“It is with tremendous sadness that we mark the passing of Mike Wallace. His extraordinary contribution as a broadcaster is immeasurable and he has been a force within the television industry throughout its existence. His loss will be felt by all of us at CBS,” said Leslie Moonves, president and CEO, CBS Corporation.
“All of us at CBS News and particularly at 60 Minutes owe so much to Mike. Without him and his iconic style, there probably wouldn’t be a 60 Minutes. There simply hasn’t been another broadcast journalist with that much talent. It almost didn’t matter what stories he was covering, you just wanted to hear what he would ask next. Around CBS he was the same infectious, funny and ferocious person as he was on TV. We loved him and we will miss him very much,” said Jeff Fager, chairman CBSNews and executive producer of 60 Minutes.
A special program dedicated to Wallace will be broadcast on 60 Minutes next Sunday, April 15.
Wallace was as famous as the leaders, newsmakers and celebrities who suffered his blistering interrogations, winning awards and a reputation for digging out the hidden truth on Sunday nights in front of an audience that approached 40 million at broadcast television’s peak.
Wallace played a huge role in 60 Minutes’ rise to the top of the ratings to become the number-one program of all time, with an unprecedented 23 seasons on the Nielsen annual top 10 list — five as the number-one program.
He announced he would step down to become a “correspondent emeritus” in the spring of 2006, but Wallace continued to land big interviews for 60 Minutes. His last appearance on television, on January 6, 2008, was a sit-down on 60 Minutes with accused steroid user Roger Clemens that made front-page news. His August 2006 interview of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won him his 21st Emmy at the age of 89. He was also granted the first post-prison interview with assisted suicide advocate-and convicted killer Dr. Jack Kevorkian for a June 2007 60 Minutes broadcast. After a successful triple bypass operation in late January 2008, he retired from public life.
Decades before his 60 Minutes success, Wallace was already known to millions. In the early days of broadcasting, with no line between news and entertainment, Wallace did both in the 1940s and ’50s. He appeared on a variety of radio and television programs, first as narrator/announcer, then as a reporter, actor and program host. On his first network television news program, ABC’s “The Mike Wallace Interview,” he perfected his interviewing style that he first tried on a local New York television guest show called “Night Beat.” Created with producer Ted Yates, “Night Beat” became an instant hit that New Yorkers began referring to as “brow beat.” Wallace’s relentless questioning of his subjects proved to be a compelling alternative to the polite chit-chat practiced by early television hosts.
Years later, CBS News producer Don Hewitt remembered that hard-charging style when creating his pioneering news magazine, 60 Minutes; he picked Wallace to be a counterweight to the avuncular Harry Reasoner. On September 24, 1968, Wallace and Reasoner introduced 60 Minutes to the 10:00 PM timeslot, where it ran every other Tuesday but failed to draw large audiences. But critics praised it, awards followed, and after seven years on various nights, 60 Minutes went to 7:00 PM Sunday and began its rise. It made the top 20 in 1977 and the top 10 in 1978, then became the number-one program in 1980 — all with a tough-talking Wallace center stage.