After 50 years, 12 Emmys and many wet hankies, the woman who shattered the glass ceiling of TV news is going out her way
Barbara Walters is known for turning her interviews into sob sessions, but as she exits the business she’s known all her life, she’s determined not to do that. When the legendary broadcaster retires next month at age 84 from ABC’s “The View,” following a groundbreaking career that’s featured more than 50 years in front of the television cameras, she’s adamant she won’t shed any tears.
“I’m not going to cry,” Walters says, from her corner office at ABC News in midtown Manhattan. She recalls watching Jay Leno’s misty final appearance on “The Tonight Show” in February. “I think Jay felt that he was pushed out,” Walters says. “I don’t feel like I’m being pushed out. This was my decision.” Walters says she settled on a timeline for her departure three years ago, as rumors about her retirement began to swirl.
It’s been a long goodbye. With Disney chairman-CEO Bob Iger in the “View” audience last spring, Walters first announced she would step down in 2014; this week she told viewers her final day on the show would be May 16. The send-off will include a two-hour primetime documentary about her career. Walters’ longevity is notable in that she was a driving force in the rise of the superstar TV news personality, and she has endured into an era when that kind of authoritative star power is waning. (Just ask Katie Couric or Brian Williams.)
As she prepares to leave, Walters admits she doesn’t feel sad. “I should really be depressed, but I’m not,” she says. “So maybe there’s something wrong with me. What’s wrong with this woman that she’s not depressed about leaving television?”
Walters has been a broadcasting fixture for so long, it’s hard to remember all the glass ceilings she shattered. She was the first woman to co-host NBC’s “Today,” paving the way for others who used the post as a springboard. In 1976, she accepted a $1 million-a-year contract with ABC, a record at the time for a news personality. She became the first woman to co-anchor the evening news (although her shotgun marriage with Harry Reasoner was fraught with tension), and she later launched her namesake primetime specials with world leaders and celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn. While still hosting weekly newsmag “20/20,” she debuted “The View” in 1997, a daytime talk show that shook up the conventions of femme-focused yakkers with its blend of politics, entertainment and opinion.
This last act has given Walters a new generation of fans, stay-at-home parents and others who tune in to hear about the day’s headlines in the show’s dishy Hot Topics segment.
“I think there was a time when I was considered too serious and without a sense of humor, because I was always in charge, especially asking very strong men questions,” Walters says. “It was considered rude or pushy.” For 17 seasons, she’s been able to show her tart wit on the “View,” cracking jokes about sex and dating — even planting a peck on the cheek of Vice President Joe Biden during a recent appearance. Was it the first time she’s done that? “I haven’t kept track of the number of times I’ve kissed the Vice President,” Walters quips.
Walters’ friends say they didn’t think she’d ever retire. “I still don’t believe she’s going to,” says Diane Sawyer, her longtime colleague at ABC. “I think we’re going to be able to knock on her door and say, ‘We need you,’ and it will be like on one of those great Western movies, where she and I get on our horses and ride back into action.” Sawyer, like Waters, acknowledges how much the news business has changed. “It’s impossible to look back and remember you used to do a show called ‘Primetime Live’ and think, ‘Dang, why did we only get a 29 share?’”
Anne Sweeney, the outgoing president of Disney/ABC Television Group, met Walters as a college page answering phones at ABC in 1978. The unwritten rule for the underlings back then was: “Never ever talk to Barbara Walters, because she was the absolute star of ABC,” Sweeney recalls. “She was the first because she was bold and fearless.”
Star Jones, who co-hosted “The View” from 1997 to 2006, says: “There is no woman that does what we do that won’t say Barbara Walters is her idol. She took the arrows that were shot her way, and women were able to advance in that field because of Barbara.” Elisabeth Hasselbeck, the “Fox and Friends” co-anchor who sat next to Walters for a decade on “The View,” credits her former boss with teaching her how to be a journalist. “I attended the Barbara Walters University,” Hasselbeck says. “I could not feel more prepared to interview anyone.”
But Walters’ persistence also makes her an unlikely candidate for retirement. “I thought Barbara was a forever person,” says friend Larry King, who left his long-running gig on CNN in 2010. “I thought she and television were like ham and eggs.”
When she announced her departure, Walters said she was hanging up her microphone for good. As her last day draws nearer, she’s become less sure. “I don’t want to say I will never come back,” she says. “If the president came on, depending on the circumstances, I might come back. If Fidel Castro said I will do an interview with you, which he has not in 25 years, I would go off and do it.” She says these rare assignments would be on a case-by-case basis. “I’m not going off into the sunset.”
Besides, she’ll remain executive producer of “The View,” the show she created with longtime producing partner Bill Geddie. She co-owns the series with ABC through her Barwall Prods. banner. Over the years, the gabfest has spawned its share of imitators, including “The Talk,” which launched in 2010 with Julie Chen, Sara Gilbert and a “View”-like panel of other co-hosts. Only recently has “The Talk” been nipping at the “The View’s” heels with its younger demographic.
Walters says she’s never seen a full episode of “The Talk,” though she’s friendly with Chen and her husband, CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves. Her competitive streak shines through as she sizes up her rival. “We are not at all affected by ‘The Talk,’” Walters says. “I don’t think the success of her show diminishes us, nor do I think the success or failure of ‘The View’ affects them. The only thing I’ll say is if you’re married to the president of the network, you get more promos.”
It’s a good punch line, but Walters is half serious. “I envy that,” she says. “I don’t have the same appeal to Bob Iger.”
Barbara Walters didn’t set out to become a journalist, as she explained in her 2008 memoir “Audition.” Her father was nightclub owner Lou Walters, who uprooted the family from Miami for New York, after he opened the Latin Quarter in Manhattan. He earned — and squandered — a fortune, which forever made Walters cautious about upswings in her career.
She changed high schools three times. “I had to make friends, be alert, ask questions, and I was never in awe of celebrities, because they worked for my father,” Walters says. “I was curious. Even today, if I go out to dinner and I’m sitting next to someone and I ask questions, they’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re interviewing me.’ ”
Walters once taught a master class that at ABC News, where she told young journalists to always ask subjects about their childhood. She believes this question unlocks a key to their personalities. Walters says she was shaped most by her older sister Jackie, who was disabled. “It gave me a childhood that was sad and kind of lonely, because there were things I couldn’t do, like have friends over,” she says. “I think it gave me empathy.”
At Sarah Lawrence College, she considered a career as an actress, but she was too frightened of rejection. When she accepted a job as a writer on “Today,” the staff there was comprised of six men and a lone woman. “And you didn’t get to be the female writer unless the other one got married or died,” Walters recalls.
She eventually parlayed her writing gig into an on-air job, and set her sights on the anchor chair. “This is my big line: They hired me for 13 weeks and I stayed on for 13 years,” says Walters, who landed her first on-air assignment in 1961. “I am very hard to get rid of.”
Since she started behind the camera, she has a strong grasp of what makes a good story. “What I do better than anything, I’m an editor,” says Walters, who can look at an interview transcript and instantly assemble the parts. (She generously offered to edit this story for Variety.)
Although she became a major star at ABC, she long regretted her decision to move to the network. When she arrived in 1976 to do the evening news, she found herself in an acrimonious partnership with future “60 Minutes” correspondent Reasoner. Viewers could cut the tension with a knife, and didn’t tune in.
“I considered that my biggest failure,” Walters says. “I was drowning without a life preserver.” She saved her career with her primetime interview specials and big gets like Barbra Streisand, Jimmy Carter, the Shah of Iran, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, John Wayne and Christopher Reeve, the latter of which earned her a Peabody Award.
She explains she’s never intimidated by an interview because she is so thoroughly prepared. She writes her questions by hand on a stack of note cards after polling everybody in her life about what to ask. “Here is my idea of hell,” she says. “I sit down and do the interview. I ask the questions, and the lights go down. I walk outside and someone says, ‘Did you ask such and such?’ I go, ‘Coulda, shoulda, woulda!’ ”
Walters wakes up every morning at 6:30, and sometimes she’ll walk — or “slush,” as she puts it — through Central Park to the “The View” studio off the Hudson River. She reads three newspapers: the New York Times, New York Post and Wall Street Journal, all in print. She’s the rare TV anchor who books her interviews by sometimes phoning publicists herself. “She has a lot of energy for calling back again and again,” Sawyer says.
Even after she retires, Walters plans to keep her ABC News office, lined with 11 Emmy Awards (there’s another in her apartment) and framed pictures of her 45-year-old daughter Jackie and beloved dog, Cha-Cha. Walters has been married three times, and confesses she’s a romantic at heart — she loves to watch reruns of “Sex and the City” (which might be described as a scripted, racier version of “The View”).
She doesn’t regret placing her career ahead of her personal life. “I don’t think there’s a person I should have been with,” Walters says. “Isn’t that amazing? I don’t look back and think, ‘How did he get away?’ ”
She isn’t sure what she will do with all her new free time. She says she looks forward to sleeping late, taking in a Broadway matinee and traveling, and she might even go back to school. She recently enrolled in an art history class at NYU. “There were seven of us, and the professor never showed up,” Walters says. “That’ll teach me. I’m going to find another professor.”
For now, she needs to choose a last guest to interview. She hasn’t decided who that will be, but a good bet might be a certain former White House intern. Walters’ exclusive with Monica Lewinsky for a “20/20” special in 1999 reached 74 million viewers, a record for a TV news telecast on a single network. “It’s the biggest interview I’ve ever done,” Walters says. “I’d like to interview Monica again. I think Monica’s story is very interesting, because everybody else has been able to move on. I’m touched by the fact that she hasn’t been able to.”
Thanks to Walters, “The View” has been the rare place in daytime that celebrated politics. It’s been a stumping ground for presidential candidates such as Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama. But last year, the show lost its fire and ice: Both Hasselbeck, the conservative voice, and Joy Behar, the liberal, exited amid speculation “The View” was trying to become less political.
“These are not Barbara and Bill’s decisions,” Walters says. “The network is also involved. I think the feeling was if one went, both had to leave. We needed to shake things up.”
That will certainly happen in the show’s 18th season, which will likely add two new co-hosts. Plus there will be a void from the natural gravitas Walters lent to the program. “We’re experimenting a little bit,” she says. “Sometimes we think we should add a man.” And it looks like “The View” will hire another right-leaning personality to keep those Hot Topics segments heated. “We need a conservative voice,” Walters says. “We do try to present a different side.”
Even if Walters is the co-executive producer, she won’t be tuning in from home — but not because of any ill will. “I think it will make me feel bad,” Walters says. “I think I will miss it. If I don’t see it, I won’t miss it.”
For sure, the ultimate career woman has loved the time she’s spent in the (usually) relaxed environment of “The View.”
“The fact that it’s been on for 17 years amazes me,” she says. “The only way I can tell is when I think of some of the cast members, and the only original one is me.”
Soon that won’t be true anymore. “No,” Walters says, looking sad for a moment. She lifts her head and gives a knowing smile. “Don’t cry for me, Argentina.”