One of the legends of television news — also along with Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt the guiding force of “60 Minutes” since joining 46 years ago — steps down Sunday night. But how exactly is a network supposed to finally say goodbye to Morley Safer, 84, who will be accorded an hourlong special at 8 p.m. on CBS/2, “Morley Safer: A Reporter’s Life”?
CBS has tried in recent days, but words have not come easily. Asked on “CBS This Morning” Friday what was “so unique about Morley,” “60 Minutes” correspondent Steven Kroft offered just one: “Morley.”
In a phone interview earlier today, Jeff Fager, the executive producer of “60 Minutes” and a longtime Safer friend, explained that in the early years, “Mike was the hard-hitting, tough interview, but Morley brought the piece that in some ways invented the whole genre — the beautifully written story, with his own observations. Just about everything he did was an adventure in one way or another.”
Safer joined “60 Minutes” in 1970, after a long and journalistically brilliant slog through battlefields around the globe, many of them in Vietnam. Wanting to leave all that behind, he found another kind of battlefield on West 57th Street. The “creative tension” at “60” was prized, also ferocious, exemplified by the combative styles of Wallace (who died in 2012) and Hewitt (in 2009).
A calm amid the raging storm, the distinct “Morley” style also found its way onto the screen, often in profiles (Jackie Gleason), even occasionally in a few stories that brimmed with measured outrage (Safer’s 1983 piece about the wrongly convicted Lenell Geter helped set him free a few days after it aired).
“There’s a great Morley moment in each” of the more than 900 Safer-reported stories for “60 Minutes,” says Fager. “He brought such a unique sensibility.”
Some viewers suspected this sensibility was shaped by what Safer had seen of war, imbued by a keen appreciation of the great pleasures of life. A bon vivant, he loved art, food and wine. He and his longtime producer John Tiffin (who died in 2010) also wandered the world. They boarded the Orient Express, visited a home for retired opera singers in Italy, found tango dancers in Finland. They helped — mightily — the U.S. wine industry with 1991’s “The French Paradox” (wine can lessen the risk of heart disease, Safer almost gleefully reported).
Those pieces were whimsical. A 1978 story called “The Music of Auschwitz” was heartbreaking.
You always sensed that Safer had done it all, seen it all and somehow even felt it all. How does an hour special even begin to capture this legendary run?