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NEW YORK – Chris Wallace – who for many television viewers of a certain vintage embodies the bulldog interviewing style of the famous father he had an early, rocky relationship with – delivered an emotional final tribute to Mike Wallace at a memorial service Tuesday at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall.
Choking up at a podium set up underneath a giant portrait of the 60 Minutes stalwart who died April 7 at 93, Chris Wallace recalled his own “Mike Wallace moment.” It was the fall of 1997, and he was about to conduct a high-profile interview with acerbic comedian Chris Rock for ABC’s PrimeTime Live.
“Less than an hour before the shoot, Chris Rock was suddenly backing out,” he said. “My worst fear had been realized. My old man had stolen the interview and he knew he had stolen it from me.”
A very tense phone conversation between father and son ensued. “I told him he had to choose between Chris Wallace or Chris Rock.”
There was an interminable pause. “Mike? Are you still there?” continued Chris Wallace. “’I’m thinking!’ he said.”
Mike Wallace did not end up doing the Rock interview. Instead, he gave it to his 60 Minutes colleague Ed Bradley to do. It was compensation for having previously stolen the Manuel Noriega interview from Bradley.
“Which I took as a big concession,” added Chris Wallace. “And yet all of us are here today mourning his death and wishing we could have one more moment with him, even one of those moments.”
For nearly two hours friends, colleagues, children and grandchildren remembered the man whose name became synonymous with the hard-nosed journalistic interview. The “four most dreaded words in the English language,” said CBS News chairman and 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager, were “Mike Wallace is here.”
The memorial included video interviews with Wallace conducted by his 60 Minutes colleagues upon the occasion of Wallace’s unwilling retirement from the broadcast in 2006. When Steve Kroft extols Wallace’s interviewing style, Wallace bristles, perhaps betraying a belief that he was being put out to pasture.
“How do you do it?” asks Kroft.
“I’m nosey and insistent and not to be pushed aside,” answers Wallace.
The program included behind-the-scenes video including one made on the occasion of 60 Minutes producer Mike Whitney’s 2007 retirement from CBS News after more than 30 years. It shows Wallace dressed in a threadbare blazer, his black hair under a knit cap, shuffling down the street near CBS News’ West 57th Street headquarters. Wallace was hamming it up for the camera, but there was more than a kernel of truth in his lament. “I retired last year,” Wallace barks at the camera. “They made me a ‘correspondent emeritus,’ said they’d never forget me, they’d love me forever. It was horseshit!”
60 Minutes producer Bob Anderson, who traveled all over the world with Wallace for more than 100 stories, recalled intentionally walking a few feet behind Wallace at airports “so I could watch people recognize Mike.”
Passersby invariably had two words for him: “Thank you.”
“He loved being Mike Wallace,” said Anderson. “If you walked through airports and people thanked you, you’d love being Mike Wallace too.”
In a career that spanned more than half a century, Wallace did everything from television commercials (for Parliament cigarettes) and game shows to variety shows and radio serials (he was the voice of The Green Hornet and The Lone Ranger). But the tragic death of his 19-year-old son Peter Wallace in 1962, inspired him to pursue a career with meaning and in 1963 he became anchor on The CBS Morning News, where he interviewed Malcolm X. It was still the post-Edward R. Murrow era at CBS News, recalled Wallace’s longtime 60 Minutes colleague Morley Safer, and “Murrow’s boys” looked askance at Wallace as the “sassy, showbiz upstart.”
Which probably only spurred Wallace on. He had “a drive to prove himself every day,” said Safer. He wasn’t easy to get along with. Safer and Wallace did not speak to each other for a year. Bradley and Wallace stopped talking for six months. None of them could remember why. And they all delighted in getting the best of the other. Safer recalled one practical joke where they concocted a letter from a “genius sperm bank” informing Wallace that he had been selected to join various Nobel Prize winners in making a deposit.
“He roamed the halls brandishing that letter,” laughed Safer. “It took an hour to convince him that he’d been had.”
The memorial was a who’s who of TV news with Wallace’s CBS News colleagues including Scott Pelley, Lesley Stahl, Bob Simon, Byron Pitts, Bob Schieffer, Bill Plante and Charlie Rose joined ABC’s Charlie Gibson, Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos and Fox News chairman Roger Ailes. Also in attendance: Donald Trump, Marlo Thomas, Phil Donahue, Atallah Shabazz (the oldest daughter of Malcolm X) and Mitt and Ann Romney, who appeared Tuesday on CBS This Morning. Wallace’s step-grandson Eames Yates Jr. and his grandson Wallace Bourgeois also spoke.
Chris Wallace, who has been at Fox News since 2003, was the last to speak. “Let’s be honest, at some point in time not just Morley, not just Ed, many people in this room were not speaking to my father,” he said. “Growing up as Mike Wallace’s son was not easy. He was busy pursuing his career and I spent the early years of mine trying to get out of his shadow.”
His father’s intellectual fire was dimmed by dementia in his twilight years, said Chris Wallace. But 20 years ago his father expressed to him that one of the “blessings of living such a long life was he had time to make amends.” When the mind goes, what remains is the essential person.
“What remained of Mike Wallace was a sweet and gentle man.”
Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com; Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie
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