CBS News Legend Mike Wallace Dead at 93

UPDATED: The veteran reporter was the first correspondent hired for "60 Minutes."

Mike Wallace, a district attorney-style interviewer who made his subjects squirm for almost four decades on the CBS News institution 60 Minutes, has died. He was 93.

Wallace died peacefully Saturday night, surrounded by family members at Waveny Care Center in New Canaan, Conn., where he spent the past few years, CBS News spokesman Kevin Tedesco said.

“It is with tremendous sadness that we mark the passing of Mike Wallace," said Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp. "His extraordinary contribution as a broadcaster is immeasurable, and he has been a force within the television industry throughout its existence. His loss will be felt by all of us at CBS."

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When CBS Evening News producer Don Hewitt pitched 60 Minutes to the network, he described it as “Life magazine of the air” and chose Wallace and Harry Reasoner as his co-editors and regular reporters. The show premiered on Sept. 24, 1968, and aired every other week at 10 p.m. Tuesdays before moving to every Sunday in 1972.

Wallace staked out a number of polarizing social and political issues with aggressive glee and saw every news story as a “drama built around value conflict.” His style was often to let the answer hang there for a few seconds to embarrass his subjects into revealing more.

His interviewees read like a who’s who of newsmakers: the Shah of Iran, Eldridge Cleaver, Nguyen Cao Ky, Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Deng Xiaoping, Manuel Noriega, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Menachem Begin, Anwar el-Sadat, Yasir Arafat, King Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, Kurt Waldheim, H.R. Haldeman, Vladimir Horowitz, Itzhak Perlman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Leonard Bernstein, Johnny Carson, Louis Farrakhan, Jack Kevorkian, Jose Canseco and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That last one netted him, at age 89, his 21st Emmy award.

He received a Lifetime Achievement Emmy in September 2003.

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Wallace, who also collected three Peabody Awards, retired as a regular full-time 60 Minutes correspondent in 2006 but appeared occasionally until 2008, when he retired from public life after a successful triple bypass operation.

“All of us at CBS News and particularly at 60 Minutes owe so much to Mike,” said Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and executive producer of the newsmagazine. “Without him and his iconic style, there probably wouldn’t be a 60 Minutes. There simply hasn’t been another broadcast journalist with that much talent. It almost didn’t matter what stories he was covering, you just wanted to hear what he would ask next."

Wallace was as famous as the leaders, newsmakers and celebrities who suffered his blistering interrogations. He won awards and a reputation for digging out the hidden truth on Sunday nights in front of an audience that approached 40 million at broadcast television’s peak.

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He played a huge role in 60 Minutes’ rise to the top of the ratings to become the No. 1 program of all time, with an unprecedented 23 seasons on Nielsen's annual top 10 list -- five as the top show. A special program dedicated to Wallace will be broadcast April 15 on 60 Minutes.

Myron Leon Wallace was born May 9, 1918 in Brookline, Mass. An immigration officer mistakenly noted the family’s original surname — Wallik — as Wallace, when they emigrated from Russia.

With the American moniker, Mike Wallace graduated from Brookline High School and enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he worked his way through school performing a series of waiter/dishwasher-type jobs. Intending to become an English teacher, he landed a job as an announcer at the university radio station and became “trapped” in a media career, as he later jocularly acknowledged.

Following graduation in 1939, Wallace worked for $20 a week as an announcer for Wood Wash, a Grand Rapids, Mich., radio station owned by a combination furniture and laundry business. Caught between a stool and a soap bar, he migrated to Detroit, where he made his network radio debut as a narrator, announcer and sometime actor on such popular radio adventure series as The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet. With his authoritative, richly stern delivery, he was a natural.

Wallace moved on to Chicago and continued in radio, broadcasting the news and serving as an announcer on such popular serials as The Guiding Light and Ma Perkins. His narration of First Line, a drama series that was part of the U.S. Navy’s recruiting program, inspired Wallace to enlist in the Navy during Would War II, and he served as a communications officer. He was placed in charge of radio entertainment of the Great Lakes Naval Training station outside Chicago.

Following the war, Wallace broadcasted the air edition of The Chicago Sun and moderated Famous Names, a popular radio quiz program. He used his vocal flair to introduce such network radio programs as Curtain Time, Fact or Fiction and Sky King.

With his actress wife Buff Cobb, Wallace soon hosted a 90-minute talk show from the Chez Paree, at the time Chicago’s hot nightspot. With Mike and Buff a hit, the couple were lured to New York, where the show thrived until 1954. They divorced in 1955, and Cobb died in July 2010.

In the early ’50s, with TV becoming a staple in America’s living rooms, Wallace became a familiar figure. Among a slew of popular shows, he hosted All Around the Town and There’s One in Every Family. He also continued in radio, including a documentary series about Broadway. He also signed to co-anchor a show called Weekday, appearing with Margaret Truman and later Virginia Graham.

Wallace even ventured onto Broadway himself: In 1954, he played an art dealer in the comedy Reclining Figure. Interested in the theater, he produced a comedy in Rhode Island in 1955.

Wallace made his mark when he began broadcasting the nightly news from WABD-TV New York and hosted a show titled Night Beat in 1956, where he interviewed two guests. Alternately charming and browbeating, he became proficient at luring his interviewees into revealing often-embarrassing details of their personal lives.

His freewheeling interview/discussion included an eclectic and sometimes notorious mix. “It was me on a stool and a guest on a chair. There were nosy, irreverent, sometimes abrasive questions,” he once told TV Guide.

ABC bought the show and began telecasting it as The Mike Wallace Interview in 1957. His tough-as-nails style often rattled guests, including Gloria Swanson, Sen. Wayne Morse, mobster Mickey Cohen, Communist Party head Earl Broader and Eldon Edwards, the Grand Wizard of the KKK who likened the show to a “third-degree setup in a police station.”

Wallace’s programs focused on such topics as religion, discrimination, communism and psychoanalysis. Simon & Schuster published the most provocative interviews in 1958.

Some criticized his style as akin to entrapment, but Wallace countered with a characteristic cross-examination. “The function of free speech under our system of government is to invoke dispute,” he said. Undeniably, as he sometimes admitted, “weak spots in people” fascinated him.

After performing man-on-the-street interviews and hosting the PM East Segment of PM East-PM West — a thinking man’s Tonight Show that aired from both coasts — and narrating David L. Wolper’s Biography series, Wallace was hired by CBS News in 1963 as a special correspondent. Within a year, he toplined the Morning News With Mike Wallace, anchored the CBS Midday News, did a daily “Personal Close-up” for CBS Radio and hosted the weekly radio program Mike Wallace at Large. He did stints as a reporter on the CBS Evening News and as a questioner on Face the Nation.

On 60 Minutes, Wallace got the stoic Ayatollah Khomeini to smile during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 when he asked him what he thought about being called “a lunatic” by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. The Ayatollah answered by correctly predicting that Sadat would be assassinated.

The same year, Carson called Wallace “cruel” during an interview after Wallace asked, “It takes one to know one?” when the late-night star took pity on an alcoholic newsmaker. Her fans protested when Wallace brought Barbra Streisand to the emotional edge in 1991 by revealing that her own mother had told him that Barbra “was too busy to get close to anyone.”

In a 2001 interview about his Broadway hit The Producers, Mel Brooks began an angry rant against anti-Semitism prompted by Wallace’s suggestion that his claims of bias were exaggerated.  And in 2003, he wrung tears out of one of the most feared defensive players in NFL history when he read lines to former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor spoken by Taylor’s son.

In more recent years, he objected to his portrayal by Christopher Plummer in the 1999 film The Insider. The screenplay was based on a Vanity Fair article “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” which accused Wallace of capitulating to corporate pressure to kill a story about a tobacco whistle-blower trying to expose Brown & Williamson’s dangerous business practices. Wallace always maintained that he wanted the story aired.

Asked during a 2007 interview with the Archive of American Television about what makes a great interview, Wallace said it comes from a “chemistry of confidentiality” coupled with a great deal of research that makes “the interviewee respect the interviewer.”

“One can get interviews with honey,” he added, “and sometimes with vinegar.”

Wallace was married four times. In 1986, he wed Mary Yates Wallace, the widow of his close friend and colleague, Ted Yates, who had died in 1967. Besides his wife, Wallace is survived by his son, Chris, host of Fox News Sunday; a stepdaughter, Pauline Dora; and a stepson, Eames Yates.