Mike Wallace, the hard-charging correspondent who was billed by CBS as “America’s toughest interviewer” on the long-running “60 Minutes” newsmagazine, has died. He was 93.
Wallace died on April 7 surrounded by family members, at Waveny Care Center in New Canaan, Connecticut, CBS News said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. The cause of death was complications from old age, CBS spokesman Kevin Tedesco said.
Wallace was deemed so vital to the success of “60 Minutes” that CBS waived a mandatory retirement rule in his case as the newsman approached 65. He was a regular contributor for another 22 years, until he retired in May 2006 at age 88.
“It is with tremendous sadness that we mark the passing of Mike Wallace,” Leslie Moonves, chief executive officer and president of CBS, said in the statement. “His extraordinary contribution as a broadcaster is immeasurable and he has been a force within the television industry throughout its existence.” CBS said it will air a special program dedicated to Wallace on the April 15 “60 Minutes” episode.
Named “correspondent emeritus,” Wallace kept an office at CBS and remained on call to its news division.
His broadcast career spanned 65 years, beginning in 1939 as a jack-of-all-trades at a radio station in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Wallace narrated “The Lone Ranger” radio scripts, pitched Parliament cigarettes on television, hosted quiz shows and even worked as an actor. He found his calling as a tough-guy interrogator on “Night Beat,” an interview program that aired on a local New York television station in 1956.
At 44 -- considered old for a correspondent -- Wallace landed a job with CBS News in 1963. Five years later, producer Don Hewitt invited Wallace to join “60 Minutes” in its debut season.
Wallace quickly became known for his muckraking stories, ambush interviews and sit-downs with celebrities and heads of state. His suntanned, leathery face became the public image of “60 Minutes” as the newsmagazine climbed in the Nielsen ratings and had an extraordinary 23-year run as a Top 10 show.
“Everything good that happened to us happened because Mike was here from the beginning,” Hewitt told Broadcasting magazine in 1992, as the program celebrated its 25th year on the air.
In his 2001 memoir, Hewitt described Wallace as “a tiger, the kind of journalist who comes along once in a lifetime, and he hasn’t lost a step along the way.” Hewitt, the creator of “60 Minutes” and its executive producer for 35 years, died in August 2009.
Wallace’s work ethic was legend, and the pace took a toll on his personal life. He was thrice-divorced by 1985. Nonetheless, his two sons wanted to become journalists. The elder son, Peter, died at 19. Chris Wallace became a star correspondent for NBC and ABC, then host of the Sunday morning public-affairs program, “FOX News Sunday.”
Wallace’s aggressive pursuit of stories stirred controversy.
General William Westmoreland sued CBS after Wallace narrated a 90-minute documentary in 1982 that accused the general of deliberately undercounting enemy troop strength in Vietnam. Although Westmoreland ultimately withdrew the $120 million libel suit, Wallace sought treatment for clinical depression after listening to five months of courtroom testimony.
Bouts of Depression
In later years, Wallace spoke publicly about his bouts with depression “for the reason that it can be helpful for other people to say, ‘Well look, here’s a guy who was at the bottom of the heap, miserable, and look, he has it back. He is surviving,’” he told the Washington-based Academy of Achievement in 2002.
Despite his tough-guy persona, Wallace was thin-skinned about his Hollywood portrayal in “The Insider,” a 1999 movie that suggested that he lost -- before recovering -- his moral compass on a 1995 story featuring tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand.
Hewitt blocked airing Wallace’s interview with Wigand on the advice of a CBS lawyer but permitted Wallace to report that decision, along with a small portion of the interview.
Myron Leon Wallace was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on May 9, 1918, to Russian-Jewish immigrants Frank Wallace, a grocer and insurance broker, and the former Zina Sharfman. An immigration official had changed his father’s name from Friedan Wallak upon his arrival in the U.S. at age 16, according to Wallace.
Wallace said he was “never an A student.” He played the violin and served as concertmaster in the Brookline High School orchestra and became captain of the tennis team.
Severe acne plagued Wallace in high school, “leaving scars that, in later years, would inspire TV critics to observe that Wallace’s ‘pockmarked, prizefighter’s face’ served to enhance the abrasive tone of his interview,” Gary Paul Gates wrote in “Close Encounters,” a memoir he co-wrote with Wallace in 1984.
Wallace enrolled at the University of Michigan in 1935, and discovered the student-run radio operation in his sophomore year. “All I wanted to be was a radio announcer,” Wallace later recalled. “I read a hell of a commercial.”
At his first radio job in Grand Rapids, he read the news, provided sports commentary and presented quiz shows.
Wallace moved to Detroit, where he was teamed with Douglas Edwards -- later to become the first CBS television news anchor -- as the two “Cunningham News Aces” on WXYZ. Wallace also served as an announcer and narrator for “The Green Hornet” and “The Lone Ranger,” two popular dramas. He married Norma Kaphan, whom he had dated when both were undergraduates at Michigan. The marriage, which produced sons Peter and Christopher, ended in divorce in 1948.
A member of the U.S. Naval Reserve, Wallace was trained as a communications officer and served two years in the Pacific on a submarine tender during World War II.
In Chicago after the war, Wallace worked for “The Air Edition of the Chicago Sun,” for which he was encouraged to report and write, not just read the news. As the interviewer for WGN radio’s “Famous Names,” he met actress Buff Cobb, who became his second wife in 1949.
‘Mike and Buff’
The two became co-hosts of a Chicago radio interview show that attracted the attention of CBS television executives in 1951. At 33, Wallace moved with his wife to New York to host an afternoon television program for CBS called “Mike and Buff.” The talk show ended in 1954, along with the marriage.
Wallace had done some television acting in Chicago, and he auditioned for and won a role in the Broadway production of “Reclining Figure.” He declared the experience too repetitious for his liking.
Wallace landed a local news-anchor job at Channel 5 in New York. He also met and married artist Lorraine Perigord, in a union that would last 30 years before ending in divorce. Wallace assumed responsibility for her two children, Pauline and Anthony, from a previous marriage.
Ted Yates, then Channel 5 news director, dreamed up the idea of “Night Beat,” the hard-hitting nightly interview program that debuted in 1956 with Wallace as the cigarette-smoking interrogator on a dark set. Interviewees were subjected to klieg lights and tight camera angles along with Wallace’s well-researched questions. Newsmakers flocked to the show to prove their mettle. ABC lured Wallace and Yates in 1957 and renamed the show “The Mike Wallace Interview.”
In 1959, Wallace returned to local news in New York -- this time at Channel 13 -- and appeared in television commercials for Philip Morris’s Parliament filter cigarettes. In 1961, he became a co-host on the upbeat “PM East” talk show produced by Westinghouse.
Tragedy struck in 1962, when Wallace’s older son died in a hiking accident in Greece. Peter Wallace had completed two years at Yale and had expressed interest in journalism.
To honor his son, Wallace ended his work in commercials and quiz shows and sought jobs as a newsman at the three major networks. CBS hired him in 1963, to the displeasure of some news veterans who frowned on his background as an entertainer. He was soon tapped to host the “CBS Morning News” and held that post for three years.
Turned Down Nixon
From 1966 to 1968, Wallace worked as a correspondent and covered the early stages of Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign. Wallace turned down a job offer from Nixon and agreed to become the co-host and co-editor of “60 Minutes,” which made its debut on Sept. 24, 1968.
Wallace accepted the “60 Minutes” job partly because he liked the idea of teaming with the low-key, personable Harry Reasoner. “Good guy, bad guy. The guy you love, the guy who makes you quake,” Hewitt put it in his memoir.
During the first two years of the show, Reasoner’s quirky stories and wry delivery helped set “60 Minutes” apart from other documentary programs. Reasoner was regarded as the “top banana” because of his talent and his role as substitute anchor for Walter Cronkite on the “CBS Evening News.”
Wallace ascended in the public eye after Reasoner departed in 1970 for the top anchor job at ABC. Other strong journalists joined the program -- including Dan Rather for six years before he became “CBS Evening News” anchor -- but Wallace remained the dominant force and sought the most-controversial stories.
He said frequent travel harmed his third marriage, which ended in divorce in 1985. The following year he married Mary Yates, the widow of his former associate Ted Yates, who had died in Jerusalem while covering the Six-Day War in 1967.