Morley Safer, one of the defining personalities of “60 Minutes,” who officially stepped down Sunday after a 46-year run there, died Thursday. He was 84.
“60” celebrated Safer’s long career Sunday with an hour broadcast that covered not just his years at the news magazine, which he joined in 1970 after Harry Reasoner left for ABC News, but the years before, when he was a globe-trotting war correspondent, who filed one of the most damning reports of the growing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam — the 1965 story on the burning of Cam Ne village.
In a phone interview late last week, Jeff Fager, executive producer of “60 Minutes” and a longtime Safer friend, explained that in the early years, “Mike [Wallace] 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.”
Wanting to leave his war coverage 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 and creator-executive producer Don Hewitt.
A calm amid the raging storm, the distinct “Morley” style also found its way onto the screen, often in profiles (Jackie Gleason, Katharine Hepburn), 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,” said 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,” about a prisoner who played in an orchestra to avoid execution, was heartbreaking.
Born in Toronto on Nov. 8, 1931, Safer held dual citizenship, which he later told Maclean’s magazine helped him to bring “a different perspective. . . . I have no vested interests.”
He dropped out of the University of Western Ontario after a few weeks, sought and got jobs on some local papers, then — haphazardly following the footsteps of his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway — headed to Europe (albeit London, not to Hemingway’s Paris). Reuters hired him in London, but he later returned to Canada, where he got a job with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), later reporting on the Suez crisis in 1956. The globe-trotter was born.
He later covered the war for Algerian independence. He was in East Berlin when the Communists began building the wall dividing the city in 1961. (Per CBS, he was the only Western correspondent there).
After joining CBS, he held three tours as chief of the CBS Saigon bureau, between 1964 and 1965. It was not a desk job: He was often in the field as the U.S. military presence grew. He was also one of the first TV newsmen working for a U.S. network to accompany troops into the field. In August 1965, he was in Danang — the mid-coast city near what was to become the DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone — when he asked to accompany some Marines to a nearby village. According to HistoryNet, the lieutenant who brought Safer on the mission said they had been taking fire from the village and had plans to “really tear it up.”
After witnessing the attack, Safer then filed his report, saying, “It first appeared that the Marines had been sniped at before and that a few houses were made to pay. Shortly after, one officer told me he had orders to go in and level the string of hamlets that surrounded Cam Ne village. And all around the common paddy fields [the camera then focused on a roof being lighted by a flamethrower] a ring of fire. One hundred and fifty homes were leveled in retaliation for a burst of gunfire. In Vietnam, like everywhere else in Asia, property, a home, is everything. A man lives with his family on ancestral land. His parents are buried nearby. . . .
“Today’s operation shows the frustration of Vietnam in miniature. There is little doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here. But to a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him that we are on his side.”
The report infuriated the White House and President Lyndon B. Johnson sought to have him fired. It also established what was to become a familiar pattern of antagonism between the media and military over war reporting.
He joined “60” during its third season. Viewers had yet to embrace the then-novel concept of something called a “news magazine,” with feature stories (ultimately a Safer specialty) and investigative reports (the province of Mike Wallace). It had bounced around on different nights before landing on Sundays in 1975. Safer’s interview with Betty Ford on the inaugural Sunday telecast shocked viewers when the first lady spoke candidly about sex, pot and abortion. “60” had a scoop, and almost instantly secured a central role in American culture — one it has yet to cede.
In time, Safer was to become one the core members of what the media (and show) called “60 Minutes’ ‘murderers’ row:’ ” Wallace, Safer, Dan Rather and Diane Sawyer — later Ed Bradley and Lesley Stahl — who occupied a set of offices side by side overlooking the Hudson River from “60’s” West 57th Street headquarters.
They competed — often vigorously, sometimes ferociously — for stories, but Safer carved out his own specialty in time. Mostly, he traveled. “I really have been just about to every corner of the world,” he said on Sunday’s farewell telecast. “One of the great pleasures is that you get to see things that very few people have access to.”
He is survived by Jane, his wife of 48 years; one daughter, Sarah Safer; her husband, Alexander Bakal; three grandchildren; and a sister and a brother, both of Toronto.
Funeral arrangements are private. A memorial service will be announced at a later date.