When a broadcast journalist giant like Mike Wallace dies, the natural reaction is to think about the time I met him. Al Fleming and I had gone to the CBS studios in Manhattan to record promos with him and Dan Rather. While we did them together with Dan, we recorded them separately with Mike.
Dan was quite sociable and we had a nice chat with him when we recorded the promos with him on the CBS Evening News set. I reminded him of the time he had visited the WRBL studios to edit an interview he had done with a West Point mill executive on brown lung disease for 60 Minutes, and we talked about that. Dan had time for us. That was not the case with Mike. He was stationed on the set of a new daytime show (which tanked) that he was doing for CBS. The set was dwarfed by the cavernous studio in which it had been erected. When I walked up to shake hands with him, he smiled and said hello, but immediately started yelling kiddingly across the huge studio to a pretty young co-worker, completely ignoring his guest, who happened to be me. He carried on a yelling conversation with her until she had left the studio. He then turned to the studio crew and authoritatively said, “All right let’s do this.” We read the promos on the teleprompter screen, doing it in one take. Then he gave me a condescending smile as we said our goodbyes as he and his crew waited for the next CBS affiliate’s news anchor to come to do another promo that would run on the affiliate’s station.
So Mike had lived up to his tough, brusque reputation in my encounter with him. Al told me later that Mike hadn’t been friendly with him. Even though I reflected that to me he was an egotistical, rude man who wasn’t interested in a conversation with a small-market anchor, I nevertheless admired his ability to solicit dynamic interviews with some very important people, including a lot of crooks whom he confronted on 60 Minutes. Just as Morley Safer and Steve Croft, who worked for years with Mike on 60 Minutes, said on CBS This Morning, Mike was highly confrontational and abrasive, but he knew how to use those qualities to get all sorts of famous, and often villanous, people to say things that would make news. And like so many others in the business, I used that direct technique from time to time to get the news subject to do the same thing. Once, when I was doing the news for WSB in Atlanta, the late Senator Herman Talmadge called the president of Cox Broadcasting and said that I was trying to embarrass him with a question I asked him. I really didn’t care, because I knew the question got right to crux of the story.
Safer, whose CBS office was next door to Mike’s, said at one point that he and Mike didn’t communicate for months, because Mike, who was highly competative , would steal stories from him. Croft said the same thing. Both also said they liked him and admired his journalistic abilities, creditin g him with being the main reason that 60 Minutes was one of the most succesful prime time news magazine programs in broadcasting history.
I remember when he first broke into the national broadcasting scene with his highly confrontational interviews on the Mike Wallace Show on ABC in the later fifties. His subjects would actually break into a visible sweat during the interview. I had to admit it was highly entertaining, though sometimes cruel. Those interviews made such an impact that they were parodied on the Sid Caesar Show. Sid Caesar was one of my favorite comedians.
As CBS was showing the long list of world-famous celebrities that Mike interviewed over the years, they said, “He even interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt.” S0 did I. I was working at WSB at the time. It aired on NBC.
All in all, I admired Mike’s journalistic ability, thought him highly entertaining, and appreciated the fact that he didn’t appear to be afraid of anyone he interviewed, including heads of state and powerful politicians and businessmen. He indeed was a giant in broadcasting.