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Playboy Interview: Mike Wallace
  • April 09, 2012 : 11:04
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Editor’s Note: Hailed as the pioneer of magazine-style television journalism, Mike Wallace was as revered and respected as they come. His 40 year career as the host  of “60 Minutes” saw him handle the most controversial interviews, from Malcolm X to Roger Clemens and tackle the most daunting and dividing issues of the late American Century. On Sunday Morning, CBS announced that the famed newsman had died at 93. The following is the 1996 Playboy interview with the man who revolutionized the word. 

"Sometimes I have a foul mouth, but people in the office respect that. They say, 'He may be a pain, but that's Mike.' Anyway, I'm such an old bugger by now that they figure, What the hell. Let him do whatever he does."

"Connie Chung did the right thing. Gingrich's mother is hardly stupid. She was used to scrutiny. There were cameras in the room. Were she a little old lady who didn't know her way around, it would have been different."

"It triggered a clinical depression. When you pick up the paper every morning and read that you are a thief, a liar, a murderer, it makes you feel lower than a snake's belly. Every insecurity I ever had took over."

Mike Wallace scoops a handful of water from a washbasin at his vacation home on Martha's Vineyard. Running it through his silver-streaked hair, he says, "There, you see? Doesn't it look black?"

"Darker," admits his visitor.

The water trick is Wallace's little concession to a senior citizen's vanity. At 78, the master interrogator of American television has only recently begun to turn gray. He swears on the heads of his four wives, three children and ten grandchildren that he has never dyed his hair, something some friends find hard to believe.

Then again, there's much about Wallace that taxes the imagination: that he's been on television for nearly half a century; that he's appeared on 60 Minutes since the day it started in 1968; that he is still considered by some to be America's toughest interviewer, as he zigzags the globe, grilling politicians and entertainers, saints and sinners, kings and con men. Over the years, Wallace has parried with the likes of Malcolm X, Luciano Pavarotti, Louis Farrakhan, Barbra Streisand, Yasir Arafat, Henry Kissinger, Vladimir Horowitz, Martina Navratilova, the Ayatollah Khomeini and Oprah Winfrey. He has also gone head-to-head with various heads of state, including the Shah of Iran, King Hussein, Deng Xiaoping, Anwar Sadat and presidents Reagan and Carter and their wives.

Wallace doesn't chase only the well known. He's as comfortable busting a shady Texas businessman as he is calling Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic a "war criminal" to his face. He practically invented hard-hitting investigative TV journalism, thanks to his willingness to put any question to anyone at any time. The hidden camera and so-called ambush interview were staples of Wallace's early 60 Minutes segments.

"Most interviewers have an embarrassment ceiling," said the late CBS News executive Bill Leonard. "But Mike is totally unafraid." Today, with more than a year left on his CBS contract, Wallace sees no reason to slow the frantic pace of helping to create, week after week, the network's top-rated broadcast and the world's most popular public affairs show (60 Minutes ranks in the top ten).

Of late, however, the road has gotten bumpy for Wallace. In recent years he has been upbraided, embarrassed or both for staging a hidden-camera interview in his own office (the taped encounter was with a camera-shy journalist who was actually trying to help him), for semipublic dustups with colleagues and for an intemperate tirade against former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, who had written unflattering remarks about him in his autobiography. But, most famously, Wallace took the fall for CBS' decision in late 1995 not to air his exclusive interview with Jeffrey Wigand, the former tobacco company vice president who blew the whistle on his ex-bosses. The embarrassment to Wallace and 60 Minutes was compounded when the New York Daily News and The Wall Street Journal ran detailed stories about Wallace's unused interview. Playing catch-up, 60 Minutes finally ran the piece—three months later.

In the aftermath of the incident there was speculation that the show had lost its edge. The network's previous loss of NFL football plus eight key affiliates to Rupert Murdoch's Fox Television Network convinced some critics—and competitors—that the show's quarter-century lock on the Sunday night prime-time audience was at last weakening.

Last spring, NBC shoved its successful Dateline NBC magazine show into Sunday's seven P.M. slot. With Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips anchoring, the peacock network hoped to peel off the younger end of Wallace's audience. Don Hewitt, the executive producer of 60 Minutes and the show's iron hand, counterpunched by bringing in outside correspondents and fresh summertime material, instead of airing the usual reruns. The changes paid off. By the time the fall season approached, Hewitt's indefatigable cash cow (Wallace says the show earns $50 million a year for CBS) was once again holding firm in the top-ten position it has occupied for 18 years.

Mike Wallace was born Myron Leon Wallace on May 9, 1918, to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in the Boston suburb of Brookline, Massachusetts. The neighborhood was, as Wallace calls it, an "O'Connor and Goldberg town," an Irish-Jewish enclave of the newly arrived and upwardly mobile. The Wallaces' neighbors down the street were Joe and Rose Kennedy, whose second son, John Fitzgerald, was born one year before Wallace. Another neighbor, Harry Dickson, who later became conductor of the Boston Pops and the father-in-law of future governor Michael Dukakis, was Wallace's violin teacher.

A decent fiddler and a fair tennis player (he was concertmaster of the Brookline High School symphony and captain of its tennis team), Wallace was nonetheless drawn to a career in broadcasting. Severe acne made him seek the darkened solitude of the radio studio, where he could be heard but not seen. It didn't take long for Wallace to discover that his voice was more of a gift than his forehand. Graduating in 1939 from the University of Michigan, he landed his first radio job in Grand Rapids, then Detroit, where he was used as an all-purpose announcer to read the news, bring on The Green Hornet and occasionally summon up The Lone Ranger. He married Norma "Kappy" Kaphan when he was 22, and his first son, Peter, was born in 1942, shortly before Wallace joined the Navy and shipped out for the Pacific.

After the war, Wallace divorced, but not before having a second son, Chris (now a chief correspondent on ABC's Prime Time Live and substitute host on Nightline). Knocking around the burgeoning Chicago broadcasting scene, Wallace met and interviewed—then courted and married—a stage star named Buff Cobb, with whom he launched a husband-and-wife TV interview show, Mike and Buff. Lured to New York, the couple was broadcast nationally on CBS, but the marriage began to crumble. After a short stint on Broadway—Wallace played an art dealer in a comedy called Reclining Figure—he finally found the niche that would forever define his broadcast persona. Ensconced on an all-black set—suited more to a police interrogation than to an interview program—Wallace waved a fuming cigarette at his guests and soon became TV's first tough-as-nails cross-examiner. The show, Night Beat, earned its host the reputation as a guy who would ask any question—no matter how insulting. Among his earliest guests was a budding young magazine publisher named Hugh Hefner. On that segment, Wallace called Hefner's star vehicle, Playboy, a "high-class dirty book," adding that its presentation of sex was "sniggering," "lascivious" and "certainly not a healthy approach to sex—you wouldn't suggest that?" (This time Wallace got as good as he gave. "I would not only suggest that," Hefner responded, smiling, "I would say it rather strongly: We consider it a pretty healthy attitude.")

Wallace also took on freelance broadcast assignments and made a handsome living. But when his son Peter was killed in a 1962 hiking accident in Greece, the grief-stricken father decided to change his life. Despite a significant decrease in income, Wallace stopped doing commercials and entertainment work and implored CBS to give him a news job. By 1968 he was a senior correspondent for the network, covering the resurrected presidential ambitions of Richard Nixon, who tried—unsuccessfully—to hire Wallace as his press secretary.

Wallace's reputation as a pit-bull interviewer endured, and shortly after the 1968 election he was recruited for a new "magazine show" called 60 Minutes. The show's rambunctious executive producer, Don Hewitt, needed a tough guy to play against the easy going charm of the show's other correspondent, Harry Reasoner. The show debuted on September 24, 1968. More than 1300 broadcasts later, it's still a hit.

We sent Peter Ross Range, a veteran of seven Playboy Interviews," to catch up with Wallace, first in New York, then at Wallace's vacation home on Martha's Vineyard. Wallace is no stranger to the "Playboy Interview," having previously been both a subject (the 60 Minutes team, March 1985) and an interviewer (Jimmy Hoffa, November 1963). Here is Range's report:

"When Mike Wallace first came down the hall toward me in his apartment on New York's Upper East Side, I was struck by his slimness—quite different from the sometimes frumpy figure he cuts on TV. It also became apparent why he's still ticking so loudly after all these years: He's a disciplined eater who plays tennis every day in the summer, weekly in the winter. His restless energy makes him a pacer in the office as well as on the court. He credits his healthful diet to his third wife, Lorraine, who 'fed me nuts and raisins for 28 years.'

"While Wallace lives and works in New York, his heart—and future resting place—is on Martha's Vineyard, the island he's been visiting since he was a boy. There he spends languid summer days with his best buddies: humorist Art Buchwald, writer William Styron, theater director Robert Brustein, academic Sheldon Hackney. Together this East Coast rat pack have bought plots for themselves and their wives in a beautiful, tiny cemetery just 200 yards down the road from Wallace's sprawling summerhouse overlooking Vineyard Haven harbor.

"Naturally, I was nervous about interviewing the ultimate interviewer. Suppose he turned the tables? Suppose he barked at me? But the true impact of facing Wallace dawned on me one day at a New York tennis club, when, between games, one of his friends asked me what it was like to interview the master. For a second I was at a loss to answer—but then found myself saying, 'It's easy.' That's when I realized that Wallace, whose personal manner is much gentler than the one seen on TV (except when he's arguing a line call in tennis), had put me so much at ease that I'd forgotten to be daunted by him. "We did, however, begin our conversation with a discussion of his notoriously hard-hitting style."

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  • anonymous
    Farewell to an important man.