NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of legendary “60 Minutes” journalist Mike Wallace, who recently announced he is retiring from the show.
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Mike Wallace has gotten so many people to talk in more than 60 years in broadcasting. But we not only wanted him to talk, we wanted him to sing.
Asking Mike Wallace to sing? It's not as crazy as it sounds. He sang in college, and a few years ago a fellow CBS employee and aspiring musician, Pat Harris, got Wallace to sing a duet on a song called "The Girl, She's Mine."
“I found myself singing self-consciously and foolishly,” he says. “The record must have sold at least 12 or 15 copies.”
Mike Wallace has been in broadcasting for some 60 years, the last 35 on “60 Minutes.” He's now 85, still at the office, still on the air.
“It was my inability to do anything else that was sufficiently interesting that kept me working here,” he says. “What would I do all day every day if I didn't have the office to come to and a bunch of young people who keep me abreast of things?"
The interest and intrigue of getting the story is still there.
“Don Hewitt has a way of saying it: ÎThe best pieces are the ones that make the audience say, ÎHoly s÷t! I didn't know that,’ And it's true," he says.
Wallace’s return to work before this season was delayed because of a fall he suffered last summer near his home on Martha’s Vineyard. He was briefly hospitalized, and has suffered occasional memory loss.
His longtime friend and colleague, “60 Minutes” Executive Producer Don Hewitt, remembers another close call back in the 1980’s.
“This is not the first time Mike’s had a close brush with death,” Hewitt says. “We were on a plane coming back from California, and he gets up to get something out of the top shelf over his seat, and he went down like a tree in a forest. He’s lying there in the aisle, out cold, and I look over and I figured, ÎHoly s÷t, he’s dead! Now we’re never going to catch ÎCheers!’”
Before 1968, Mike Wallace had already worked in radio and television news, entertainment and quiz shows, and commercials too. Then “60 Minutes” was born, with Wallace and Harry Reasoner as co-anchors.
“For the first four or five years, no one was paying any attention to us. We were able to figure out what kind of a broadcast we wanted it to be,” Wallace says. “Then, suddenly, between civil rights, Vietnam, hidden cameras, ambush interviews, and things of that nature, it became such an adventure that all of us here were caught up in the damned thing.”
As the broadcast gained in popularity, so did Wallace's reputation. A sign in his office reads: “The four most dreaded words in the English language are ÎMike Wallace is here.’”
“How do you think we got to the top? We scared the hell out of everybody, and they were afraid not to talk to us,” Hewitt says. “I always thought that was pretty good."
Wallace went everywhere and interviewed seemingly everyone. Among the memorable moments, a 1980 interview with Ayatollah Khomeini in which Wallace quoted then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat: “He calls you, imam, forgive me - his words, not mine - a lunatic."
“The translator looked at me, because the ayatollah didn't understand anything but Farsi, and he looked at me as though I was the lunatic that he was going to translate for,” Wallace says. “He translated, and it was the only time that Khomeini actually looked at me in the eyes.”
“60 Minutes” was a hit. But it was all-encompassing, the workload overwhelming.
“You sacrifice family life, or at least I did,” Wallace says. “I must have been on the road two out of every three days for the first 10 years of ’60 Minutes.’ As a result of which I didn't know my kids, I didn't know my wife or wives. I was so caught up in this enterprise and enjoying it so much.”
Mike Wallace was born Myron Wallace in Brookline, Massachusetts, the son of immigrant parents. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1939, served in the Navy during World War II, and came back to work in radio in Chicago.
He eventually settled in New York City in the 50’s, and found a home on late night television.
“My nature has always been to be a little bit nosy, and occasionally abrasive and difficult to work with, and curious," he says. “We did something that had never been done before. We really did, in a strange way, pioneer the kind of journalism that had not been done. Up to that time, interviews were pap, pablum."
Wallace is known now for his trademark hard-hitting news style, but early on he dabbled in entertainment and quiz shows, appeared briefly on Broadway in the 50’s, and did cigarette commercials. But his life and career changed in 1962 when his son Peter died in a fatal accident.
“I lost a son,” he says. “When my son Peter fell off a mountain in Greece, I figured, let's do something that would make Peter proud of his old man, because Peter wanted to be a writer."
It was that personal tragedy that led Wallace to concentrate on journalism. He joined CBS in 1963. He covered Vietnam, civil rights, politics, and even got arrested at the chaotic Democratic Convention in 1968.
Wallace sometimes had to interview friends, like the Reagans.
"I asked some questions that [Ronald Reagan] didn't like, but he handled very well,” he says.
”We changed reels in the camera, and Nancy said to me, her old friend, 'Mike, what are you doing to Ronnie?'’”
Wallace has been married four times. His son Chris is a correspondent for Fox News.
There have been public and internal struggles involving CBS and “60 Minutes.” But one of Wallace's most difficult battles didn't involve an interview or chasing a story, but his own private struggle with depression, which he first spoke about publicly on “Later with Bob Costas” in 1990.
“That's the first time I began to talk about it, and the response was incredible,” he says. “[They got] hundreds, maybe a thousand letters, Bob said, from people who were depressed and figured if Wallace can still work and go to work every day and has beaten it, then maybe I can too. I was ashamed, and my personal doctor said, ÎYou don't want to let people know.’ Can you believe it? As I look back at it, what's stigmatic about being depressed? But mental illness is a very, very difficult thing to handle, and it's misunderstood by so many of the American people.”
Wallace has spent his career doing something he loves, earning the recognition and respect from his colleagues and the public along the way.
“If the guy has survived to 85 and he still does a job, I cannot tell you what satisfaction you feel when people walk up to you on the street and say, ÎI've enjoyed your work. You've done a good job,’" he says.
- Budd Mishkin