Wallace, who honed his reporting chops in Chicago, died in New Canaan, Conn., colleague Bob Schieffer said Sunday morning on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Known for his often caustic questioning of sometimes reluctant guests on television’s premier newsmagazine show, Wallace became the first CBS network correspondent to work beyond 65 in a medium dominated by young faces.
The veteran broadcaster was already 50 when “60 Minutes” debuted in 1968. He stayed with the newsmagazine for 38 years, stepping down as a full-time correspondent in 2006. He made occasional appearances after that. His final interview, which aired in early 2008 before he underwent triple heart bypass surgery, was with baseball pitcher Roger Clemens.
“Let’s face it,” Wallace, who had a pacemaker and two hearing aids, told People magazine in 2006. “I’m not 85 anymore.”
Wallace found his broadcasting niche in Chicago in the 1940s, first as radio news writer for the Chicago Sun and then as reporter for WMAQ. He laid the ground work for his life work on a show for Chicago’s WGN Radio called “Famous Names,” where he first conducted his trademark one-on-one interviews at the Blackstone Hotel.
Later, as the self-described “black hat” of “60 Minutes,” he circled the globe, displaying his charm and wit and asking sometimes barbed, always penetrating questions of kings and presidents, business magnates and bureaucrats.
Of the roughly 800 pieces he did for the show, two stood out the most for him, Wallace told the Associated Press in 2006.
One showed his tender side as Wallace persuaded piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz to pound out “Stars and Stripes Forever” in 1977. The other, in 1979, showed Wallace’s tough side as he became the first Western reporter to interview Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after 53 American hostages were taken in Tehran. To his face, Wallace quoted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as calling Khomeini a lunatic.
“I figured what was he going to do, take me as a hostage?” Wallace said in the AP story. “The translator looked at me as if I were a lunatic.”
When he interviewed Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan in 2000, Wallace set an incendiary tone: “You don’t trust the media; you’ve said so. You don’t trust whites; you’ve said so. You don’t trust Jews; you’ve said so. Well, here I am.”
“So what?” Farrakhan responded.
Wallace so specialized in the hard-hitting search for skulduggery that beer magnate Joseph Coors once quipped: “The four most frightening words in the English language are ‘Mike Wallace is here.’ ”
The comment was adapted into a “60 Minutes” ad, and Wallace displayed a framed copy in his office.
Barbara Walters, a formidable interviewer and a competitor at ABC, offered a telling compliment on the 1997 special “Mike Wallace Remembers”: “The best interviewer in all of television — past, present and probably future — is Mike Wallace.”
“60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt — who died in August — told People magazine in 2006: “If they were allowed to put plaques up at CBS for the three journalists who would stand out, they would be Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace.”
Jeff Fager, the show’s current executive producer, told the Los Angeles Times in 2006, “I don’t think there would be a ’60 Minutes’ if Don hadn’t found Mike. Mike was never afraid to say what he thought.”
Wallace’s unapologetic style made for splashy, often emotional interviews — and the occasional dust-up.
The controversy that most affected Wallace grew out of a 1982 “CBS Reports” documentary he narrated on the Vietnam War. The report stated that Gen. William Westmoreland had inflated enemy casualty figures to maintain support for the unpopular war. Westmoreland sued CBS and Wallace for $120 million but dropped the suit months into the trial.
THE MIKE WALLACE INTERVIEW
Guest: Dr. Robert Hutchins
July 20, 1958
Dr. Robert Hutchins, former dean of the Yale Law School, former president of the University of Chicago, and president of the Fund for the Republic, talks to Wallace about freedom, illusion as an enemy of freedom, government, civil rights, and education.