Andrew Wallenstein: When Wallace interviewed me on ’60 Minutes’

Mike Wallace, who died Saturday night, had a reputation as a hard-nosed questioner whose velvet-throated voice never totally concealed the glee he felt in going in for the kill, which always made his interviews lively and entertaining.

Wallace enjoyed a career in broadcast journalism that spanned more than half a century, much of it as part of the reporting team on CBS’ highly rated and highly lauded news program “60 Minutes.”

He died at a care facility in New Canaan, Conn. Wallace was 93 and had had triple bypass surgery in 2008.

CBS was happy to continue its association with the veteran newsman well into his eighth decade. (He retired from the show in 2006 but did occasional work for the network until 2008.) CBS announced the newsman’s death on “CBS Sunday Morning,” and a prepared obituary was aired as part of “Face of Nation.”

In addition to “60 Minutes,” Wallace was always a welcome contribution to political conventions, elections and special reports for CBS. Along the way he picked up 20 Emmys, including a lifetime achievement nod in 2003, as well as a Peabody Award and a Robert E. Sherwood Award.

A rep for “60 Minutes” said the program will devote its April 15 edition to a tribute to its longtime correspondent.

Wallace was an outspoken critic of the news media’s descent into tabloid journalism, but his approach to an interview virtually guaranteed high entertainment value. “He’s more theatrical than any other working newsman,” TV critic Michael J. Arlen once noted. “His role is borrowed largely from courtroom drama. He is the fiery prosecutor — the righteous and wrathful D.A. determined to rid Gotham City of its undesirables.”

Wallace’s “60 Minutes” colleague Morley Safer paid tribute to him in an essay on CBS.com Sunday. Safer said: “Wallace took to heart the old reporter’s pledge to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. He characterized himself as ‘nosy and insistent.’

“So insistent, there were very few 20th century icons who didn’t submit to a Mike Wallace interview. He lectured Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, on corruption. He lectured Yassir Arafat on violence. He asked the Ayatollah Khoumeini if he were crazy. He traveled with Martin Luther King (whom Wallace called his hero). He grappled with Louis Farrakhan. And he interviewed Malcolm X shortly before his assassination.”

Several of Wallace’s investigative pieces triggered lawsuits, none more prominently than a “CBS Reports” segment in 1982 on General William Westmoreland alleging that the general and other U.S. military officials in Vietnam conspired to mislead the president and the public about the strength of the enemy in order to maintain popular support for the war.

The suit was eventually withdrawn, but not before CBS agreed to make a statement praising Westmoreland’s patriotism. (CBS News later acknowledged that some reporting improprieties had taken place).

The Westmoreland trial triggered the first of two clinical depressions that plagued Wallace during the 1980s. Not only was his second marriage breaking up at the time, but “when a reporter goes on trial for libel, you’re going to his gut,” Wallace later recalled. “You’re going to his soul because you are calling him a cheat.” A second, more serious depression came several months later when Wallace prematurely stopped taking his antidepressants.

Wallace had to endure a second profound embarrassment related to his work on “60 Minutes” when, in the 1996 Vanity Fair article “The Man Who Knew Much,” Marie Brenner claimed that Wallace had caved when CBS, under tobacco industry pressure, killed a story about whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. Brenner’s article was made into the 1999 Russell Crowe film “The Insider,” in which Christopher Plummer portrayed Wallace as oily and amoral.

The newsman was born Myron Leon Wallace in Brookline, Mass.; the family’s original name was Wallechinsky. His father, Frank, was a Russian immigrant who worked as a wholesale grocer and insurance broker. Wallace attended Brookline High School and worked his way through the U. of Michigan, majoring in English. But after working at the university’s radio station, Wallace was hooked. After getting his B.A., Wallace worked as a writer for Grand Rapids radio station WOOD WASH (the station’s name stemmed from its ownership, a furniture company and a laundry). He didn’t stay long, moving on to Detroit, where he was employed as an announcer and actor on such popular adventure series as “The Lone Ranger” and “The Green Hornet.”

By 1941 he was in Chicago, where he wrote and broadcast news for the Chicago Sun and acted in “The Crime Files of Flamond.” He also announced several radio series. His narration of “First Line,” a dramatic series that was part of the Navy’s recruiting program, led to his enlisting in that branch of the armed forces during WWII. He was a communications officer in Hawaii and Australia and in charge of radio entertainment at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.

Wallace returned to civilian life in Chicago and continued his association with the Chicago Sun, also moderating gameshows like “Famous Names” and series such as “Fact or Fiction.” He even did commercials and a televised children’s show. He then paired with his second wife, Buff Cobb (his first wife was Norma Kaphan), on a talkshow broadcast from the Chez Paree, a Chicago nightclub. CBS came knocking at their door, and the show was moved to New York for TV presentation. The show ended in 1954 with the pair’s divorce.

It was on TV that Wallace really came into his own, with a variety of programs like “On a Sunday Afternoon” and the educational series “Adventure.”

He even managed some acting, debuting on Broadway in a comedy, “Reclining Figure.”

Along with partner Ted Yates Jr., Wallace organized a news department for a local New York station and began broadcasting the nightly news.

He also created “Night Beat,” a lively interview show, that was an instant success. ABC bought the show and renamed it “The Mike Wallace Interview.” Wallace interviewed everyone from celebrities like Gloria Swanson to the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Highly praised and always controversial, the show went off the air after only 18 months.

For the next few years, Wallace served in a variety of TV news capacities, most prominently as narrator for David Wolper’s “Biography” series. He hosted a CBS gameshow, “The $100,000 Big Surprise.”

Then, in 1963, CBS new head Richard Salant hired Wallace as a special correspondent and he anchored “CBS Morning News.” He went on to anchor “CBS Midday News” and a weekly radio program, “Mike Wallace at Large.”

He traveled extensively, reporting from Vietnam and other overseas destinations; reported for “CBS Evening News”; and was a questioner on “Face the Nation.”

His preeminent position in television news was cemented by the Don Hewitt-produced series “60 Minutes,” conceived as a Life magazine of the air. Wallace and Harry Reasoner served as co-editors and reporters. After moving from Tuesday at 10 p.m. to Sunday at 7 p.m., “60 Minutes” gradually became one of the highest-rated shows on television.

Wallace reported on everything from Medicaid fraud to grief therapy to Nazism in the U.S. Along the way he never avoided controversy. He also continued probing interviews with everyone from Neil Simon to Spiro Agnew and the Shah of Iran.

In August 2006 Wallace interviewed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for “60 Minutes”; the entire interview appeared on C-SPAN, but the segment on “60 Minutes” was criticized for having been edited in a way to make Ahmadinejad’s views seem more extreme.

Wallace’s last interview on “60 Minutes” was with retired baseball star Roger Clemens in January 2008.

The presidents of ABC News, NBC News and Fox News all praised Wallace on Sunday.

A third marriage to painter Lorraine Perigord also ended in divorce. Wallace had two sons by his first marriage, Christopher, also a broadcast journalist, and Peter, who was killed in a mountain climbing accident.

He is survived by his fourth wife, Mary Yates; son Chris; stepdaughter Pauline Dora and stepson Eames Yates; and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.