Don Hewitt, a pioneer of television news and creator and longtime executive producer of “60 Minutes,” died Wednesday of pancreatic cancer. He was 86.
Hewitt died at his home in Bridgehampton, N.Y., where he was with his family, CBS News said in a posting on its website.
His death came a month after that of fellow CBS legend Walter Cronkite. As with Cronkite, “60 Minutes” will devote its entire hour to a Hewitt memorial on Sunday.
In addition to creating the idea of star journalism, Hewitt was responsible for helping to develop television’s role as a forum for political debate.
By demonstrating that news could be a profit center, Hewitt also fundamentally changed the way that the networks looked at their news divisions — for both good and ill, given subsequent trends in broadcast journalism.
Hewitt produced and directed the now-famous first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade Nixon to wear makeup in order to mask his wan on-camera appearance. But the candidate didn’t listen, became the perceived loser of the debate and subsequently lost the election.
Later, at “60 Minutes,” Hewitt helped prove the notion that intelligent news programming could garner big ratings with his creation of the first and most successful newsmagazine show.
“It is a sad and difficult time for all of us who worked at ‘60 Minutes,’” Jeff Fager, who succeeded him as executive producer of the show in 2004, said in a statement. “Don was a giant figure in our lives and will always have an impact on this broadcast — there’s a part of him in every one of us, and it affects every decision we make.”
Tributes also poured in from other broadcast journalists, with ABC News prexy David Westin saying that Hewitt “taught us all by his example just how good television news could be.” Diane Sawyer — a onetime “60 Minutes” correspondent, and the show’s first woman — called him “one of those bosses that made you braver.”
Hewitt was born in New York City and attended NYU for one year before dropping out to become a journalist. He got his start in the newspaper business as a copy boy for the New York Herald Tribune and went on to serve as a merchant marine correspondent and war correspondent during WWII.
After nearly a decade as a print journalist, Hewitt jumped at the chance to work in the new medium of television. He began his long association with CBS in 1948 as producer-director of the 15-minute telecast “Douglas Edwards With the News,” and he directed programs such as Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now” and “Person to Person.” He went on to serve as the first executive producer of “CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite” when it went to a half-hour format in 1963.
Hewitt’s use of cue cards and multiple filming angles helped define the idea of the modern “anchorman,” a term that Hewitt claimed to coin for Cronkite during the 1952 political conventions. Hewitt is also credited with being the first to appropriate the lower half of the television screen for printed information.
Hewitt was responsible for CBS’ coverage of national political conventions between 1948 and 1980. In addition to producing and directing the Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960, he also directed three of the network’s “Conversations With the President,” featuring John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
But when Fred Friendly, with whom Hewitt had worked on “See It Now” and other broadcasts, became head of the news division in 1964, he removed Hewitt from the news broadcast and gave him a new title as executive producer of live and taped documentaries. With a colorful persona that could clash with a more staid CBS News environment, Hewitt considered it a kind of exile, but he used the time to come up with the idea of “60 Minutes.”
Premiering in 1968, the show revolutionized the concept of television news. Unlike the nightly news, “60 Minutes” had the time to delve into social and political issues with a mixture of breaking news and investigative journalism. The idea was to place three news stories with broad audience appeal in a one-hour program format; “60 Minutes” premiered on Sept. 24, 1968, with co-hosts Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner.
The show became a top-20 hit in 1977 after its first full season in Sunday’s primetime slot. The following year it became the first news program to break into Nielsen’s top 10 — a rank it held for 23 straight seasons. The program occupied the top ratings spot five times since 1980, matched only by “All in the Family” and “The Cosby Show.”
One of the most successful television shows ever made, “60 Minutes” has earned CBS billions of dollars in profits and earned a reputation for breaking news. Presidential candidate Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, appeared on the program to address questions of his infidelity in 1992; and Al Gore announced on the show that he wouldn’t run for president in 2004.
Hewitt’s hard-charging persona was put onscreen in 1999 film “The Insider,” in which he was played by Philip Baker Hall. The movie, which earned Russell Crowe a lead actor Oscar nomination, depicted the true story of former tobacco industry executive-turned-whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. Under pressure from CBS’ lawyers, “60 Minutes” had cancelled Wigand’s on-camera interview with Wallace.
Hewitt oversaw “60 Minutes” until his retirement in 2004. He continued to work on occasional projects, including a stint as executive producer of NBC’s “Radio City Christmas Spectacular” in 2007.
He was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1995, he was awarded the Founders Emmy by the Intl. Council of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and a special Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 2003.
He is survived by his wife of 30 years, Marilyn Berger; two sons, a daughter and a stepdaughter; and three grandchildren.
Funeral services will be private.