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Barbara Walters, Pioneering Journalist and Queen of Celebrity Interviews, Dies at 93

Barbara Walters Dead
Courtesy of ABC

Emmy-winning newswoman and celebrity interviewer Barbara Walters, the doyenne of television news, died Friday evening at her home in New York, her publicist confirmed to Variety. She was 93. 

Walters conducted interviews with the most prominent figures across politics and entertainment, from Katharine Hepburn to Monica Lewinsky to Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat.

Having blazed a trail for women in TV news, Walters was the highest-paid television journalist at one time, earning as much as $12 million per year at ABC, where she worked from 1976 until her retirement from ABC News and from her show “The View” in May 2014. She put in 12 years at NBC’s “Today” show prior to that.

Walters received multiple Daytime Emmy nominations for best talk show host for her work on “The View,” winning in 2003 and 2009, and she also received multiple Primetime Emmy nominations for her specials, winning in 1983. She also won a Daytime Emmy in 1975 for “Today” and shared a News and Documentary Emmy for her work at ABC on coverage of the turn of the millennium.

Walters’ March 3, 1999, interview of Lewinsky was seen by 74 million viewers, the biggest audience ever for a journalist’s interview. Walters asked Lewinsky, “What will you tell your children about this matter?” and Lewinsky replied, “I guess Mommy made some mistakes.” At that point Walters turned to the viewers and declared, “And that is the understatement of the century,” bringing the program to a dramatic conclusion.

As Variety wrote in an article on her retirement, “Walters’ longevity was 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.”

The Barbara Walters interview was considered definitive. Highly personable and ingratiating but with a tough core, Walters withstood critiques about the softness of her interrogatory style with celebrities and sometimes major political figures as well. In part such criticism was because she was a woman — and successful — in a world in which male journalists fancied themselves as going for the jugular. Walters did blur the lines between journalism and entertainment to such a degree that the two sometimes were indistinguishable.

The oft-cited examples were asking Hepburn what kind of tree she would be and closing an interview with President-elect Jimmy Carter with the counsel, “Be kind to us, be wise with us.” The former incident didn’t take place quite as legend would have it: In Walters’ 1981 interview of the movie star, Hepburn described herself as feeling like a very strong “tree” in her old age. Walters pressed her on “what kind of tree are you?” To which Hepburn said she preferred to be an oak rather than an elm, in order to avoid Dutch elm disease. Walters had a capacity to enhance the comfort level of the interviewee to such a degree that personal revelations emerged without much effort.

To be interviewed by Walters was synonymous with success in the celebrity arena. World leaders from Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin (their first joint interview) to Richard Nixon, Fidel Castro and Margaret Thatcher also felt secure being interviewed by her.

Walters was as important for who she was as for what she represented. As the first longtime co-host of “Today,” she broke that barrier for women. When she sat beside Harry Reasoner on the ABC Evening News — albeit briefly — that glass ceiling was shattered. Working well into retirement age, she helped dispel age discrimination against women on television as well.

After Walters’ early work at New York area TV stations, CBS came calling for its morning show, where her duties included booking and being a gofer. She made her first on-air appearance at the station in a fashion segment she had produced and also grabbed an exclusive interview in 1956 with survivors of the Andrea Doria ship sinking. She left CBS after two years and worked for a time in public relations for Tex McCrary’s TV department. In 1961, she landed a writing position on “Today” at NBC. She wrote women’s features, pre-interviewed guests and did some booking. She even narrated fashion segments on air. Her first major on-air feature was accompanying first lady Jacqueline Kennedy to India and Pakistan. Eventually she was seen on air frequently opposite Hugh Downs, her future “20/20” co-host.

“Today” had gone through dozens of women co-hosts, including actor Maureen O’Sullivan, who abruptly quit in 1964. Downs suggested that the network try out Walters, which it did, though she wasn’t elevated to co-host status until 1974. By that time, Sally Quinn had gotten there first on CBS’ “The Morning Show.”

Walters grew popular almost immediately, however, and she also made appearances on “The Tonight Show” and as a commentator on NBC Radio’s “Emphasis.” In 1970, Walters published a ghostwritten book, “How to Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything,” which sold well, and hosted a syndicated talkshow, “For Women Only.” But all was not well at NBC. When Frank McGee succeeded Downs as co-host, he was antipathetic to Walters, demanding certain interviewing privileges and making it clear that Walters was to have a role “which was not only secondary but submissive,” she told the Ladies Home Journal. Still considered too aggressive, she struck out to land hard-to-get interviews as her only way to combat McGee’s dominance. In 1974, the dismissed “Today” producer Stuart Schulberg criticized her in Newsweek as lacking the ability “to ask the ultimate jugular question” because she was too respectful of power. Part of her quandary was that submissiveness was demanded of her at the same time that she was criticized for displaying it. Her friendships with the rich and powerful were also held up to scrutiny.

In 1976, ABC lured her away with an unprecedented $1 million contract that included co-hosting the evening news with Reasoner and other specials and assignments. Walters was mercilessly pounded by the media for this high-water mark and withstood Reasoner’s contempt before segueing into journalistic interviews, specials and, eventually, the highly rated “20/20,” which first went on the air in 1981.

The Barbara Walters interview began in 1976, becoming a celebrity TV staple. Most of the major TV and film stars of the last generation submitted to Walters’ questions at one time or another. She also score interview coups, including Castro and the historic Begin/Sadat sitdown. She interviewed virtually every sitting president from Eisenhower, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump; many prominent world leaders, including the Shah of Iran, Russia’s Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, China’s Jiang Zemin, the U.K.’s Thatcher, India’s Indira Gandhi plus Vaclav Havel, Muammar al-Gaddafi, King Hussein of Jordan, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Still, she never earned the respect of prominent Washington and New York political journalists, always being viewed as too soft.

ABC eventually paid her $3 million-$4 million a year and almost lost her to CBS in the early 1990s. Even when her remuneration rose to $12 million, the network was still making a profit on her as her interviews were released in syndication via the network’s part-owned cable outlet Lifetime.

In 1997, Walters co-created daytime ABC talkshow “The View,” which she co-hosted with women including Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O’Donnell and Meredith Vieira over the years. Variety described the show as having “shook up the conventions of femme-focused yakkers with its blend of politics, entertainment and opinion.” She exited “20/20” in 2004.

In March 2010, Walters announced she would no longer hold Oscar interviews but would still be working with ABC and on “The View.” In May 2013 she announced that she would retire a year later to enjoy her good health. 

In September 2009, Walters was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the 30th annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards. She was also inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame.

ABC aired a two-hour documentary on Walters’ life and career when she retired in May 2014.

Barbara Jill Walters was born in Boston on Sept. 25, 1929. Her father, Lou Walters, was a nightclub owner, and his business would take the family to Miami and New York, where he owned the Latin Quarter. Walters attended Miami Beach High School and New York’s private Fieldston School and Birch Wathen School. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a B.A. in English.

Scuttling her original ambitions to be a teacher, Walters began work as assistant to the publicity director of NBC’s WNBT New York (later WNBC).

Walters was married three times: to Bob Katz in 1955; to Lee Guber, with whom she adopted a daughter, Jacqueline; and to TV producer Merv Adelson, whom she divorced for the second time in 1992.