NEW YORK – “Mike Wallace is here to see you.”
The “60 Minutes” newsman had such a fearsome reputation that it was often said that those were the most dreaded words in the English language, capable of reducing an interview subject to a shaking, sweating mess.
Wallace, who died Saturday in the New Canaan, Conn., care facility at age 93, didn’t just interview people. He interrogated them. He cross-examined them. Sometimes he eviscerated them pitilessly. His weapons were many: thorough research, a cocked eyebrow, a skeptical “Come on” and a question so direct it took your breath away.
Despite his tough style, the famous and infamous lined up to be grilled: Iranian revolutionary Ayatollah Khomeini, China’s Deng Xiaoping, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
Add to those seven U.S presidents and a host of celebrities, including baseball great Roger Clemens, who denied allegations of steroid abuse and Barbra Streisand about her many years of psychoanalysis: “What is she trying to find out that takes 20 years?” he asked.
“Many people who weathered a Mike Wallace interview grew to respect him greatly,” Fox News Channel Chairman Roger Ailes said on Sunday. “He actually was trying to serve the audience, and that’s what made him great.”
“He was hands down the best television interviewer ever,” said Steve Kroft, his former “60 Minutes” colleague. “I can’t think of anyone, besides [CBS legend Edward R.] Murrow, who had a greater influence in shaping television journalism.”
Wallace, who suffered from heart problems, seemed to lose his illustrious career in the fog of memory in his final few years. In a December 2011 interview with Playboy, Wallace’s son Chris, a Fox News anchor, said his father still recognized him but never talked about 60 Minutes.
“There’s a lesson there. This is a man who had a fabulous career and for whom work always came first. Now he can’t even remember it.”
Wallace was born Myron Wallace on May 9, 1918, in Brookline, Mass. He discovered his love for journalism while working on the college radio station at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. He served as a communications officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II, then worked as a news reporter for WMAQ in Chicago.
In the early 1950s, he joined the CBS network in New York. He eventually left CBS and made his name as a tough interviewer with the ABC programs “Nightbeat” and “Mike Wallace Interviews” and hosted game shows and entertainment programs.
His professional success was not mirrored in his personal life. Married four times, Wallace “had difficulty expressing his feelings for people he loved,” Chris Wallace said.
It was the death of Chris’ older brother Peter, 19, in a 1962 mountain climbing accident in Greece, that prompted Wallace to move solely to news. “I felt I owed it to Peter,” Wallace once said.
He renewed his association with CBS and hosted the news series “Biography,” later becoming a correspondent in Vietnam, then joining “60 Minutes” in 1968, where his arguments with his close friend, producer Don Hewitt, were legendary.
“60 Minutes” pioneered the use of “ambush interviews,” with reporter and camera crew corralling alleged wrongdoers in parking lots, hallways, wherever a comment – or at least a stricken expression – might be harvested from someone dodging reporters’ phone calls. They were phased out after Hewitt termed them “showbiz baloney.”
Wallace didn’t think he had an unfair advantage over his interview subjects: “The person I’m interviewing has not been subpoenaed. He’s in charge of himself, and he lives with his subject matter every day. All I’m armed with is research.”
A special program dedicated to Wallace will be broadcast on “60 Minutes” next Sunday, April 15, CBS said.
Besides his wife, Mary Yates Wallace and his son, he is survived by a stepdaughter, Pauline Dora, and stepson, Eames Yates.
AP with Gannett News Service, news reports