‘Minutes’ man is clocking out

Wallace was original correspondent with Reasoner

Mike Wallace is calling it a career after 38 years as the face of “60 Minutes.”

In a statement, the iconic broadcaster, who turns 88 in May, said he plans to retire at the end of the current TV season.

“I’ve often replied when asked when I’ll retire that I’d do it ‘when my toes turn up,’ ” he said. “Well, they’re just beginning to curl a trifle.”

Show’s creator, Don Hewitt, said no one did more to set the tone that set “60 Minutes” apart from the litany of newsmagazine imitators and made it the most durable franchise in TV history.

“Today most reporters are beat reporters. Not Mike. Mike can do Tina Turner and he can do Vladimir Putin. The world is his beat,” Hewitt said.

Wallace’s retirement leaves Andy Rooney and Morley Safer as the two remaining elders who joined “60 Minutes” soon after it began.

His retirement opens up some breathing room on a staff that became crowded by the arrival of orphans from the canceled “60 Minutes II,” including Lara Logan, Bob Simon and Scott Pelley.

Dan Rather also joined as a full-time correspondent after stepping down as anchor of the “Evening News.”

Wallace already had cut down the number of pieces he did a year to six or seven from the average 20 produced by other full-time correspondents. He said his decision is health- and lifestyle-related.

“It’s become apparent to me that my eyes and ears, among other appurtenances, aren’t quite what they used to be,” he said. “And the prospect of long flights to wherever in search of whatever are not quite as appealing.”

Despite his age, Wallace said, “CBS isn’t pushing me,” adding he plans to remain at the news division “in a comfortable office” and to contribute his signature interviews when asked.

“He’s going to have that opportunity,” said exec producer Jeff Fager. “Wallace represents everything about `60 Minutes’ that has made it special.”

Technically, CBS is calling him “emeritus correspondent”; Hewitt similarly continues to have an office on the premises.

Hewitt pitched the idea of the show, a TV version of Life magazine, to CBS News prexy Dick Salant in 1967; Salant greenlit it in a 1968 memo, “60 Minutes of Primetime.”

Wallace and Harry Reasoner were picked as the first correspondents for the show when it began on Tuesday nights in 1968.

Wallace had already built a reputation as a tough-guy interviewer as host of the 1950s series “Night Beat,” and Hewitt tapped the two, as he recalled in his autobiography, as “the guy you love (Reasoner) and the guy who makes you quake (Wallace).”

Originally, the show struggled opposite NBC’s “Movie of the Week” and ABC’s “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” but it got good press and was ultimately moved to Sunday night, where it began a 23-year streak as a top-10 show.

“We had a little time when no one was watching to find out what we were doing,” Wallace said. “Finally, during the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, we were able to do some better stuff and had the time to do it.”

Even today, against Sunday night hits like ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” as well as specials like the Grammys and the Olympics, “60 Minutes” draws 14 million viewers and remains among TV’s top 20 shows.

Perhaps the most serious threat to “60 Minutes” came when Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey and asked Wallace to become his press secretary. Wallace declined; instead he’s interviewed every president from John Kennedy to George W. Bush.