The “60 Minutes” newsman had such a fearsome reputation that it was often said that those were the most dreaded words in the English language, capable of reducing an interview subject to a shaking, sweating mess.
Wallace, who won his 21st and final Emmy Award at 89, died Saturday in the New Canaan, Conn., care facility where he had lived the last few years of his life. He was 93.
Wallace didn’t just interview people. He interrogated them. He cross-examined them. Sometimes he eviscerated them pitilessly. His weapons were many: thorough research, a cocked eyebrow, a skeptical “Come on” and a question so direct it took your breath away.
He was well aware that his reputation arrived at an interview before he did, said Jeff Fager, CBS News chairman and Wallace’s long-time producer at “60 Minutes.”
“He loved it,” Fager said Sunday. “He loved that part of Mike Wallace. He loved being Mike Wallace.
He loved the fact that if he showed up for an interview, it made people nervous. … He knew, and he knew that everybody else knew, that he was going to get to the truth. And that’s what motivated him.”
Wallace made “60 Minutes” compulsively watchable, television’s first newsmagazine that became appointment viewing on Sunday nights. His last interview, in January 2008, was with Roger Clemens on his alleged steroid use. Slowed by a triple bypass later that month and the ravages of time on a once-sharp mind, he retired from public life.
Another “60 Minutes” veteran, Morley Safer, paid tribute to his former colleague on the newsmagazine Sunday. Safer said Wallace specialized in villains – charming them to appear on the show and then getting them to reveal their true stripes.
“He was a kind of one-man truth squad, a man with a remarkable gift for getting to the very core of a story,” Safer said. “60 Minutes” plans a full tribute to Wallace next Sunday. During the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, Wallace asked Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini – then a feared figure – what he thought about being called “a lunatic” by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Khomeini answered by predicting Sadat’s assassination.
In the early 1990s, Wallace reduced Barbra Streisand to tears as he scolded her for being “totally self-absorbed” when she was young and mocked her decades of psychoanalysis. “What is it she is trying to find out that takes 20 years?” Wallace wondered.
“I’m a slow learner,” Streisand told him.