By Gary Strauss and Carol Memmott
Television journalist Mike Wallace, who combined a confrontational interview style with show-business panache over a celebrated career that spanned seven decades, died Saturday night at a care facility in New Canaan, Conn. He was 93.
One of the last of a long line of tough, old-school TV journalists, Wallace's career started in entertainment on the radio in the 1940s, moving to game and interview shows on the new medium of television in the '50s. He was best known for his no-nonsense inquisitor's role on CBS' top-rated news magazine 60 Minutes, which began in 1968.
Wallace continued working well into his 80s, applying his trademark reporting style — steely questioning, skeptical debating, sly wordsmithing — to his subjects.
According to the CBS website, Wallace died at a care facility where he had lived in recent years. He had a history of heart problems, CBS said.
Despite his tough style, the famous and infamous lined up to be grilled. His who's-who list of newsmaking subjects included Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Iranian revolutionary Ayatollah Khomeini, China's Deng Xiaoping, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. Add to those seven U.S presidents: George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy.
By the time he retired in 2006, Wallace had completed 38 consecutive seasons with 60 Minutes. Even after he announced his retirement, he continued to report as a "correspondent emeritus" for the network. Months later, he scored an exclusive interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a newsmaking scoop that won him his 21st Emmy.
Then, in January 2008, he again made headlines in an interview with baseball great Roger Clemens about allegations of steroid abuse. Soon after, Wallace underwent triple-bypass heart surgery.
The sharp-witted and equally sharp-tongued Wallace 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, talked about his father who at the time was living in the Connecticut facility.
"My dad is 93 and showing it for the first time," Wallace said. "Physically, he's OK. Mentally, he's not. He still recognizes me and knows who I am, but he's uneven. The interesting thing is, he never mentions 60 Minutes. It's as if it didn't exist. It's as if that part of his memory is completely gone."
Chris Wallace said the only thing his father talked about at that point in his life was his children and grandchildren. "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."
That focus on work probably contributed to his public success. His combining of a dramatic show-business approach with solid journalism made for great television. As a founding father of 60 Minutes in 1968, he quickly became the resident tough guy, zinging subjects with "gotcha" questions or getting them to say something they later wished they hadn't — "Mike Wallace moments," Chris once called them.
Memorable moments included the time Wallace got a Chicago businessman to admit on camera he kept two sets of books: one for himself and one for the taxman. "I said, 'Look, between you and me, Chicagoans do this all the time, right?' And he says, 'Between you and me, you're right.' Between you and me and the whole middle of America! What a moment!" Wallace told USA TODAY in a 2000 interview.
During the 1980 hostage crisis in Iran, Wallace looked the Ayatollah Khomeini in the eye and, quoting Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's appraisal, said, "He calls you — Imam, forgive me, his words, not mine — a lunatic."
Wallace recalled, "I figured, 'What the hell, is he going to throw me in jail?'"
His 1998 60 Minutes interview with Jack Kevorkian, the "Doctor of Death," along with a clip showing Kevorkian administering a lethal injection to a terminal patient, led to a murder conviction despite the physician's argument that assisted suicide and euthanasia should be legal. In 2007, Wallace got the first interview with Kevorkian after his release from prison.
There were also low moments. The first involved a report on enemy strength during the Vietnam War that led to a 1982 libel case against Wallace and CBS by the subject of that report, Gen. William Westmoreland. The second involved a 1995 expose on the tobacco-industry scandal, in which the network, fearing litigation, backed away from running Wallace's piece with whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand.
In the Westmoreland case, the general and CBS ultimately settled, but not before a high-profile trial that threw Wallace into depression.
"To be sued by him and sit in a drafty federal courtroom for five months and be called a liar, fraud and cheat was not easy," Wallace told USA TODAY, pulling out an analysis by the CIA that he said confirmed everything he reported. "The facts. One hundred percent of everything we said," Wallace said, slapping the document.
The tobacco incident was dramatized in film in 1999's The Insider, and Wallace publicly trashed the Michael Mann movie. He felt betrayed by Lowell Bergman, his producer on that story, who worked with Michael Mann on the film. They didn't speak after the story, and Wallace said large parts of the film were made up, and "by the end, they had me finding my moral compass, which was laughable."
Bergman defended the accuracy of the film. "We're all human. I've made some mistakes, and Mike's made some mistakes,'' Bergman said.
Columnist and television analyst Jonathan Alter, who wrote extensively about Wallace when he covered the media for Newsweek, says that after both the Westmoreland and Wigand reports, Wallace "was tormented by the questioning of his journalistic skills. His torment was testimony to how seriously he took his craft."
Low points aside, The New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta said Wallace will be remembered as "the guy who stuck his microphone in the faces of lot of powerful and corrupt people and asked them embarrassing questions."
Wallace, born Myron Leon Wallace on May 9, 1918, was the son of an immigrant father who was an insurance broker. He discovered his love for journalism while working on the college radio station at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. He served as a communication 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 programs Nightbeat and Mike Wallace Interviews and hosted games 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 told USA TODAY, noting that Peter had expressed an interest in journalism, and Wallace had told him it was a noble profession.
He renewed his association with CBS and hosted the news series Biography, later becoming a correspondent in Vietnam, then joining 60 Minutes, where his arguments with his close friend, producer Don Hewitt, were legendary.
In later years, Wallace grew closer to Chris. In the 2011 Playboy interview, Chris talked about their relationship and how difficult it was and said it wasn't much of one until he was 14. Peter, who had carved out his own relationship with his dad, "had been putting pressure on my father to see me," Wallace told Playboy. "In the beginning, it was pretty awkward for me. My father was a stranger."
Slowly, Chris said, their relationship began to blossom over meals at legendary New York watering hole Toots Shor's. "It was a big roast-beef place where famous athletes would hang out. My dad knew I was a huge sports fan. I still am. Frank Gifford would be there, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Arcaro, Howard Cosell. I loved seeing these people. And slowly, my dad and I got to know each other over slabs of meat. He really became my father after that."
Contributing: Peter Johnson, Cathy Payne.