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Playboy Interview: Mike Wallace
  • April 09, 2012 : 11:04
  • comments

Playboy: Would you ever do any of those things?

Wallace: I never have. I'm not good at it. But it's perfectly legit.

Playboy: But it's sucking up.

Wallace: It isn't necessarily. Well, with some of them it is.

Playboy: Who were your favorite celebrities to profile?

Wallace: I guess I fell in love with Vladimir Horowitz—and he with me. So funny.

Playboy: How so?

Wallace: It was at Orchestra Hall in Chicago. First time I'd met him. But I was apprehensive about Horowitz. He was this extraordinary figure. He had been holed up, hadn't left his house, for 12 years. Now he was performing again. We were supposed to meet him at four o'clock on a Saturday afternoon for the interview—he was playing the next day at four. In fact, he performed only on Sundays at four o'clock because he believed it was the only time of week that men don't fall asleep. Anyway, he arrived for our interview on Saturday wearing bow tie and tails. As he came onto the stage, where our cameras were set up, I said to him, "Maestro!" And he said, "Mike Wallace! I watch you every Sunday night!" Horowitz was kind of an adolescent. We hit it off and had a good time.

Playboy: One person you didn't hit it off with was Barbra Streisand. In 1991 you did a profile of her and, in front of her, quoted her mother as saying that Barbra was not a very attentive daughter. Before the interview was over, you had Barbra crying. She said angrily to you: "You're really enjoying this, aren't you?"

Wallace: Well, Streisand and I had worked together years before. She had appeared about 15 times on a broadcast that I did around 1960 called PM East. She was this raspy, difficult, self-absorbed person—with this glorious voice. We didn't hit it off very well back then, and I wound up not liking her very much. We didn't talk for about 20 years. She didn't miss me and I didn't miss her. Big deal.

Playboy: So why did you do the interview with her?

Wallace: While she was making the movie The Prince of Tides, her manager came to me for permission to use some of the material from PM East for a new album. I said, "Sure, but how about a 60 Minutes piece on her when the movie is released?" We negotiated for a long time. She wanted to know what it would be about. She wanted control over the final edit—which was denied. Finally, she said OK.

Playboy: But the interview turned out pretty rough, didn't it?

Wallace: It wasn't a rough interview. From my point of view, it was an absolutely sensible interview. But she didn't like being reminded about certain things.

Playboy: About her mother?

Wallace: Well, her mother said, in effect: Barbra doesn't have time for me.

Playboy: How did you feel when she started crying?

Wallace: I was, I was . . . I'm trying to say . . . I felt good at that point, because we were seeing the unvarnished human being—one of the most accomplished, most admired and most vulnerable individuals in the world of entertainment. It gave a perfect understanding of the kind of person she is. That moment in the interview humanized her even more to the millions who saw her.

Playboy: She wrote you a letter, which you read on the air. She said that she didn't like the piece and that you had a mean streak.

Wallace: Yes.

Playboy: And your response was: "I was told that Barbra said she really liked it." Last year she was asked about this, and she said that remark made her feel like she'd been "date-raped."

Wallace: I never read or heard that. She said that four years after the broadcast? That's asinine.

Playboy: One interview coup this year was Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam. Why do you think he agreed to be interviewed?

Wallace: We had been negotiating with Farrakhan since before the Million Man March—without success. But then he was taken aback by the reaction to his speech at the march, to the numerology and the gobbledygook. And when he came to New York for the rapprochement between him and the widow of Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz, he began to see firsthand how I was regarded in the black community. Malcolm X had been a friend of mine. We trusted each other.

Playboy: Did your opinion of Farrakhan change after the interview?

Wallace: To some degree, yes. He's a very civilized fellow. I'd had a hunch that he was intelligent, well educated, hardworking. What I didn't know was whether or not he was a demagogue.

Playboy: And?

Wallace: Well, after the interview, we had lunch at his place in Arizona. He suggested that he would like to talk with somebody high up in the Jewish community, if I could arrange it. He really felt that he had been misunderstood in the Jewish community, and particularly by the Jewish leadership. So I said, "I'm going to try." I won't name names, but I went to a bunch of people who were fairly high up in the Jewish community, and they showed no interest. None.

Finally, I went to my friend Edgar Bronfman, head of the World Jewish Congress. He's regarded in the Jewish community as perhaps a maverick, but he's faithful to Judaism and Israel and he has political clout. And he agreed to have dinner with Farrakhan. We did it on a Sunday night at the Bronfmans'—Mr. and Mrs. Bronfman, Mr. and Mrs. Farrakhan, Mr. and Mrs. Wallace.

Playboy: What happened?

Wallace: Well, it was fascinating. Everybody asked flat-out questions and Farrakhan was very forthcoming. They found him reasonable, rational and charming—just as I had. But Farrakhan spoke in Brooklyn the next day and it was the same old rhetoric. It certainly contradicted what he had said the night before.

Playboy: Then what did you do?

Wallace: I took myself out of it at that point. I just wanted to bring these people together to see what might happen. I'm not sure it's the role of a reporter to do that. I had some misgivings, but I figured, What the hell.

Playboy: Let's get back to your role in investigative journalism. One of your biggest coups—and biggest embarrassments—was the story last year on the tobacco industry. You had a secret source, Jeffrey Wigand, a former employee at a tobacco company. Wigand was bound by a confidentiality agreement to keep certain corporate data from the public. You supposedly had this information cold, but your lawyers feared a potential $15 billion lawsuit, which could have bankrupted CBS. So they prevented you from running the story. In retrospect, how do you feel about that decision?

Wallace: I can't believe there's a jury in the world that would protect the sanctity of that kind of confidentiality agreement. I'd love to see this case—or a similar case—go to court. I'd love to see some law made.

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  • anonymous
    Farewell to an important man.