Barbara Walters dies; TV news pioneer was 93
During more than three decades at ABC, and before that at NBC, Walters’ exclusive interviews with the famous and powerful brought her celebrity status that ranked with theirs.
NEW YORK — Barbara Walters, the intrepid interviewer, anchor and program host who led the way as the first woman to become a TV news superstar during a network career remarkable for its duration and variety, has died. She was 93.
Walters’ death was announced by ABC on air Friday night.
“Barbara Walters passed away peacefully in her home surrounded by loved ones. She lived her life with no regrets. She was a trailblazer not only for female journalists, but for all women,” her publicist Cindi Berger also said in a statement.
An ABC spokesperson did not have an immediate comment Friday night beyond sharing a statement from Bob Iger, the CEO of The Walt Disney Company, which owns ABC.
During nearly four decades at ABC, and before that at NBC, Walters’ exclusive interviews with rulers, royalty and entertainers brought her celebrity status that ranked with theirs, while placing her at the forefront of the trend in broadcast journalism that made stars of TV reporters and brought news programs into the race for higher ratings.
Walters made headlines in 1976 as the first female network news anchor, with an unprecedented $1 million annual salary that drew gasps. Her drive was legendary as she competed — not just with rival networks, but with colleagues at her own network — for each big “get” in a world jammed with more and more interviewers, including female journalists who followed the trail she blazed.
“I never expected this!” Walters said in 2004, taking measure of her success. “I always thought I’d be a writer for television. I never even thought I’d be in front of a camera.”
But she was a natural on camera, especially when plying notables with questions.
“I’m not afraid when I’m interviewing, I have no fear!” Walters told The Associated Press in 2008.
In a voice that never lost its trace of her native Boston accent or its substitution of Ws-for-Rs, Walters lobbed blunt and sometimes giddy questions at each subject, often sugarcoating them with a hushed, reverential delivery.
“Offscreen, do you like you?” she once asked actor John Wayne, while Lady Bird Johnson was asked whether she was jealous of her late husband’s reputation as a ladies’ man.
Late in her career, in 1997, she gave infotainment a new twist with “The View,” a live ABC weekday kaffee klatsch with an all-female panel for whom any topic was on the table and who welcomed guests ranging from world leaders to teen idols. A side venture and unexpected hit, Walters considered “The View” the “dessert” of her career.
In May 2014, she taped her final episode of “The View” amid much ceremony and a gathering of scores of luminaries to end a five-decade career in television (although she continued to make occasional TV appearances after that). During a commercial break, a throng of TV newswomen she had paved the way for — including Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Robin Roberts and Connie Chung — posed with her for a group portrait.
“I have to remember this on the bad days,” Walters said quietly, “because this is the best.”
Her career began with no such signs of majesty.
In 1961 NBC hired her for a short-term writing project on the “Today” show. Shortly after that, what was seen as the token woman’s slot among the staff’s eight writers opened, and Walters got the job. Then she began to make occasional on-air appearances with offbeat stories such as “A Day in the Life of a Nun” or the tribulations of a Playboy bunny. For the latter, she donned bunny ears and high heels to work at the Playboy Club.
As she appeared more frequently, she was spared the title of “Today” Girl that had been attached to her token female predecessors. But she had to pay her dues, sometimes sprinting across the “Today” set between interviews to do dog food commercials.
She had the first interview with Rose Kennedy after the assassination of her son, Robert, as well as with Princess Grace of Monaco, President Richard Nixon and many others. She traveled to India with Jacqueline Kennedy, to China with Nixon and to Iran to cover the shah’s gala party. But she faced a setback in 1971 with the arrival of a new host, Frank McGee. Although they could share the desk, he insisted she wait for him to ask three questions before she could open her mouth during joint interviews with “powerful persons.”
Sensing greater freedom and opportunities awaited her outside the studio, she hit the road and produced more exclusive interviews for the program, including Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman.
By 1976, she had been granted the title of “Today” co-host and was earning $700,000 a year. But when ABC signed her to a $5 million, five-year contract, the salary figure branded her “the million-dollar baby.”
Reports of her deal failed to note that her job duties would be split between the network’s entertainment division (for which she was expected to do interview specials) and ABC News, then mired in third place. Meanwhile, Harry Reasoner, her seasoned “ABC Evening News” co-anchor, was said to resent her high salary and celebrity orientation.
“Harry didn’t want a partner,” Walters summed up. “Even though he was awful to me, I don’t think he disliked me.”
It wasn’t just the shaky relationship with her co-anchor that brought Walters problems.
Comedian Gilda Radner satirized her on the new “Saturday Night Live” as a rhotacistic commentator named “Baba Wawa.” And after her interview with a newly elected President Jimmy Carter in which Walters told Carter “be wise with us,” CBS correspondent Morley Safer publicly derided her as “the first female pope blessing the new cardinal.”
It was a period that seemed to mark the end of everything she’d worked for, she later recalled.
“I thought it was all over: ‘How stupid of me ever to have left NBC!’”
But salvation arrived in the form of a new boss, ABC News president Roone Arledge, who moved her out of the co-anchor slot and into special projects for ABC News. Meanwhile, she found success with her quarterly prime-time interview specials. She became a frequent contributor to ABC’s newsmagazine “20/20,” joining forces with then-host Hugh Downs, and in 1984, became co-host. A perennial favorite was her review of the year’s “10 Most Fascinating People.”
Walters is survived by her only daughter, Jacqueline Danforth.
Frazier Moore, a longtime Associated Press television writer who retired in 2017, was the principal writer of this obituary. Associated Press journalist Stefanie Dazio contributed to this report from Los Angeles.