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Mike Wallace dead at 93

Mike Wallace, who died April 7, 2012, at

Mike Wallace, who died April 7, 2012, at the age of 93, in a 2001 file photo. 60 Minutes" will devote its entire hour to Mike Wallace on Sunday. Photo Credit: CBS / Peter Freed

Mike Wallace, a lion of American television news whose hard-charging interviewing style defined "60 Minutes" throughout most of its history, died Saturday. He was 93.

Wallace had lived in a New Canaan, Conn., nursing home for the past several years.

For decades after "60 Minutes" launched in 1968, Wallace was arguably the best-known news figure on television, after Walter Cronkite. Wallace was to "the interview" what Cronkite had been to the anchor chair -- an authority figure with an inimitable style that was both aggressive and seductive.

"He created the tough broadcast interview. No one else had ever done it," Lowell Bergman, the former "60 Minutes" producer long associated with Wallace, told Newsday in a phone interview, adding that Wallace had enormous courage. "Sometimes he went a little overboard with it, but his passing and Cronkite's passing is the passing of an era."

Wallace understood production and "how it all fit into whatever you needed to make a television story," Bergman said.

Dan Rather, former "CBS Evening News" anchor and a "60 Minutes" correspondent, said in a statement that Wallace "was from the beginning and for many years the heart and soul of "60 Minutes." In that role, he helped change American television news."

Wallace sat down with thousands of prominent figures over a 65-year career. He was TV's best-known proponent of the "ambush" interview -- a brassy guerrilla strike on an elusive subject who didn't want to talk.

Wallace interviewed, often multiple times, every president dating back to Harry S. Truman, and dozens of other world leaders. He also sat down with civil rights leaders, movie stars and musicians.

He counted both Malcolm X and Nancy Reagan as personal friends. He was not friends with Louis Farrakhan, who once scolded him by saying "You should be quiet."

Wallace's encounters with Shirley MacLaine (1984), Itzhak Perlman (1992) and Mel Brooks (2001) may have been among the most popular and repeated interviews in "60 Minutes" history, but the most famous addressed convulsive moments in American history.

To John Ehrlichman, the Nixon aide tied to the Watergate scandal, Wallace said: "Laundering money in Mexico, payoffs to silence witnesses, perjury, plans to audit tax returns for political retaliation, theft of psychiatric records, spying by undercover agents, conspiracy to obstruct justice -- all of this by the law-and-order administration of Richard Nixon."

"Is there a question in there somewhere?" Ehrlichman responded.

Wallace also interviewed Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent assigned to protect John F. Kennedy in the back of the limo in Dallas, who told Wallace he wished he had reacted "5/10ths of 1 second faster" to save the president from an assassin's bullet.

Wallace joined CBS in 1951, co-hosted an afternoon talk show with then-wife Buff Cobb, and left the network in 1955. Upon returning to CBS in 1963, Wallace vowed to become a serious newsman.

He established his hard-hitting interview style on programs such as "Night Beat" and "The Mike Wallace Interview." He anchored the well-regarded "Biography" and became a key Vietnam War correspondent. With "60 Minutes," he perfected the style.

But with success came controversy. Wallace's 1973 profile of Vietnam veteran Lt. Col. Anthony Herbert resulted in a lawsuit that led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that a journalist's "state of mind" can be addressed in a libel case (Wallace ultimately prevailed). In 1982, Wallace was sued by Gen. William Westmoreland over the documentary "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," although Westmoreland dropped the suit three years later. Wallace suffered a breakdown during the case.

In 1995, a Wallace-anchored report on tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand was held from the show because the network feared a lawsuit (it would later air the story, and the Oscar-nominated 1999 movie "The Insider" would be based on the incident).

Myron Leon "Mike" Wallace was born in Brookline, Mass. He attended the University of Michigan, where he set his sights on a career in law, a goal quickly forgotten when he saw the school's broadcasting studio.

Wallace is survived by his wife, the former Mary Yates; his son, Chris; a stepdaughter, Pauline Dora; two stepsons, Eames and Angus Yates, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

 

 

Big moments

 

1973: Interview with Richard Nixon aide John Ehrlichman as the Watergate scandal was unraveling.

1979: Interview with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Wallace asked the Iranian leader what he thought about being called a "lunatic" by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Khomeini said Sadat should be assassinated. Not long afterward, Sadat was killed.

1982: Interview with Gen. William C. Westmoreland for a "CBS Reports" documentary. Wallace said Westmoreland had purposely manipulated Vietnam War enemy casualty figures. Westmoreland sued for libel but later dropped the suit.

1996: Interview with Louis Farrakhan, Nation of Islam leader. Wallace sharply interviewed him about various inflammatory statements. Wallace condemned Farrakhan's visit to Nigeria, saying "it could be the most corrupt nation in the world." Farrakhan responded, referring to the United States: "You're not in any moral position to tell anybody how corrupt they are. You should be quiet."

1996: Story on Big Tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand. It was delayed by CBS' fear of being sued. The internal fight over the show was turned into the 1999 film "The Insider."

Compiled by Verne Gay

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