More than any other figure in broadcast journalism, the legendary Barbara Walters made sure her interviews qualified as TV events.
Walters, who died Dec. 30 at the age of 93, reigned as the master of the big-get sit-down with newsmakers of the moment, and in doing so she helped television news ascend to new heights of prominence and influence. Among her many skills was her dexterity in drawing insights from aging Golden Age stars such as Fred Astaire, John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn to world leaders in crisis, from Muammar Gaddafi to Anwar Sadat to Fidel Castro to Vladimir Putin.
From the mid-1970s through the early 2010s, Walters was the undisputed pace-setter in landing coveted interviews with boldface names. And by the accounts of her top competitors over the years, Walters was a fierce contender for big gets until the day she retired from ABC News in 2014. Walters’ March 4, 1999, sitdown with Monica Lewinsky, coming out of the storm over her relationship with President Bill Clinton, remains the highest-rated TV interview special of the past 25 years, watched live at least in part by an estimated 74 million viewers. Walters wielded a level of clout in her prime that will be hard to match in an industry that has become much more fragmented by digital media and 24/7 cable news.
Walters made her mark as star at Roone Arledge’s ABC News. But her sharp perspective on news and culture was evident from her earliest days as a writer, producer and ultimately on-air personality for NBC News’ “Today.” From her first outing reporting on haute couture in Paris to her compelling contributions to “Today’s” coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Walters brought her signature wit, style and substance to everything she did.
Here’s a look back at Barbara Walters at her best.
Monica Lewinsky (March 3, 1999) ABC News’ “20/20”
Barbara Walters grabbed a big piece of the sex scandal that built the internet when she landed the first sit-down with the former White House intern who was in the eye of the sexual misconduct storm with President Bill Clinton that broke wide open in January 1998. Lewinsky broke her silence, with a mix of mordant laughter and tears, to Walters after more than 14 months of incessant media coverage. The two-hour “20/20” special that aired 9-11 p.m. on a Wednesday night garnered a 48 share of the viewing audience – meaning that nearly 50% of all TV sets in use that night were watching what Barbara had to say. As noted by ABC News: Toward the end of the interview, Walters asked Lewinsky, “What will you tell your children when you have them?” Lewinsky replied, “Mommy made a big mistake” to which Walters quipped, “And that is the understatement of the year.”
Here is Walters recalling the experience of interviewing Lewinsky interview for the Archive of American Television.
Manhattan After JFK’s Assassination (NBC News’ “Today”) November 1963
More than 35 years before, Walters showed her skill at observational reporting with a fascinating report of her tour Manhattan on Nov. 23, 1963, the day after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
The clip is a time capsule that demonstrates how far video newsgathering technology has come. But back then, Walters’ had to sit at the anchor desk opposite Hugh Downs (her future co-anchor partner on ABC News’ “20/20”) and paint a picture with words and feelings. She captures the poignant sight of Saks Fifth Avenue pulling the curtains on its famous picture windows except for one, which featured a portrait of the slain President “surrounded by vases of crimson roses.” In the one 42nd Street nightclub where she finds a significant number of patrons whooping it up, Walters quotes a staffer as telling her, “The people here tonight are the people who are here on Christmas Eve. They have no home.”
Barbara Walters Special (ABC News) Dec. 14, 1976
Walters launched her signature franchise ABC News specials at the end of America’s bicentennial year. Her guests were Barbra Streisand, riding high on the success of her 1976 rendition of “A Star is Born”; President-elect Jimmy Carter and future first lady Rosalynn Carter.
Fidel Castro (ABC News) June 9, 1977
Walters proved her mettle on world affairs when she ventured to Cuba for a groundbreaking interview with the island nation’s iconoclastic Communist leader.
Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat (ABC News) November 1977
Walters left a mark on world history with her coup in landing the first-ever joint interview of Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat amid an accelerated effort at Mideast peace talks. She sat with the two leaders in Jerusalem. Two years later, in March 1979, Walters conducted another lengthy sitdown with Sadat in Washington, D.C.
Katharine Hepburn (ABC News) June 2, 1981
Walters captured a lion in winter when she sat with the legendary actor as Hepburn went on her final hunt for Oscar gold after the outpouring of acclaim for her work opposite Henry Fonda in 1981’s “On Golden Pond.” Hepburn’s frank conversation with Walters went viral for the time. It cemented Hepburn’s image as grande dame with a flinty New Englander spirit. It also left an indelible mark on Walters career when she was criticized — indeed, often ridiculed — for asking Hepburn “what kind of tree” she would like to be. Hepburn had begged the question earlier in the conversation by comparing herself to flora and fauna. But that context was always left out of the punchlines aimed at Walters.
Christopher Reeve (ABC News) Sept. 7, 2002
One of Walters’ most heart-wrenching celebrity interviews came in 2002 when she conversed with Christopher Reeve, the Hollywood leading man who was paralyzed in an equestrian accident in 1995. Reeve’s session with Walters set his legacy as a determined survivor who used his experience to advocate for the rights of the disabled. He died two years after the special aired.
First Appearance on “Today” (NBC News) 1961
Walters made the most of her very first on-air appearance for “Today” with a colorful “filmed report” on the Paris fashion shows. She sat opposite “Today” news anchor Frank Blair and from the get-go, there was something immediately compelling about her. Her voice was clear and strong, enhanced by her unusual and unforgettable diction. Blair introduces her as one of the show’s “staff writers” who was sent out on an arduous assignment. Walters takes that cue and runs with it, sprinkling in an earthy sarcasm while describing what would be a dream trip for millions of her viewers.
“Oh Frank, it was awful,” Walters says. “First of all, every day I had to go and look at fashion shows. And then I had to go and have lunch at Maxim’s and drink Champagne. Then I had to smell all the perfume at Dior.” With a broad smile she turns her eyeliner-heavy eyes back to Blair and buttons it all up with precision timing. “It was so trying that I took absolutely the very last plane that I could to get back here today,” she says with a smile. In that moment, there’s no question Walters knew she had just made a lifelong bond with the camera.
(Pictured top: Barbara Walters and Monica Lewinsky)