For the second time in less than half a year, “60 Minutes” is preparing to honor one of its own.
Last fall, it was Andy Rooney. This time, it’s Mike Wallace, the show’s undisputed titan who was the first correspondent hired for the legendary show back in 1968. He died at the age of 93 last Saturday evening, which didn’t give “60 Minutes” producers enough time to work up a tribute in time for last Sunday’s show.
So they turned their attention to this weekend’s episode and produced a one-hour tribute to Wallace airing Sunday (April 15) at 7/6c on CBS.
Wallace was a key figure in the history of television. He was one of the first, true superstars of TV news – the brash, swashbuckling tough guy who never hesitated to ask tough questions of anyone, famous or infamous. He became TV’s best-known practitioner of the ambush interview, confronting alleged wrongdoers with a camera crew and microphone in parking lots and grocery store aisles.
Today, these kinds of theatrics are commonplace in TV news, particularly during sweeps months on local newscasts. But back in the ’60s and ’70s when Wallace was doing it, he was the undisputed champion of the ambush.
Wallace was one of those guys who had been in the television business since the dawn of time. The late Paul Harvey once told me he and Wallace had been actors together in radio dramas originating from Chicago in the 1940s – that’s how far back Wallace’s career went. I tried to picture this, and I could not.
Guys like Wallace and Rooney were unabashedly old-fashioned. One of the things that made writing about them such a pleasure was that you could call up CBS and get them on the phone with relative ease. Why? Because these guys were so old-school that they answered their own phones, and all a reporter had to do was call the CBS switchboard and ask to be connected to their offices.
Then, after they’d found out you were a reporter, they didn’t hesitate at all to talk to you. They were not the types to hang up and go get permission from a p.r. rep before doing an interview.
I last spoke to Wallace in 2003, when he was 84 and already cutting back on his “60 Minutes” workload – from an estimated 35 pieces a year to eight. He said the reduction made him feel left out. “I would sit here in this glass office and see people running back and forth doing stories,” he told me then, “and I see all of the firehorses going and I say, ‘What’s going on out there?’ and ‘Why am I not [out there]?’ ” Of course, he was being a tad disingenuous; he was about to make a trip to Australia to interview and profile Russell Crowe.
I last laid eyes on Wallace just a few years ago on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, at a neighborhood restaurant and bar called Luke’s where the lion of CBS News was a regular customer. His favorite dish was the house meatloaf. Now, Wallace is gone, but his favorite dish, renamed “Mike Wallace meatloaf” is still on the menu.
CBS’s “60 Minutes” tribute to Mike Wallace airs Sunday night (April 15) at 7/8c.