Morley Safer, Stalwart of '60 Minutes,' Dies at 84

Morley Safer-2000-60 Minutes- H 2016
Karin Epstein/CBS/Photofest

He filed an eye-opening report from Vietnam, joined the newsmagazine in 1970 and worked at CBS News for 52 years.

Morley Safer, a pillar of broadcast journalism as a member of CBS’ 60 Minutes team for almost five decades, died Thursday in his Manhattan home, the network said. He was 84.

Safer helped change Americans’ perception of the Vietnam War in 1965 with an eye-opening report about the torching of the village of Cam Ne.

A native of Toronto, Safer earned a Lifetime Achievement Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2009. He also collected 12 Emmy Awards, three Peabody Awards, two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, two George Polk Memorial Awards and the Paul White Award from the the Radio/Television News Directors Association.

Safer started with CBS News in 1964. He announced his retirement this month at the end of his 46th season with 60 Minutes; his last piece for the newsmagazine, a profile of Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, had aired two months earlier.

"After more than 50 years of broadcasting on CBS News and 60 Minutes, I have decided to retire. It’s been a wonderful run, but the time has come to say goodbye to all of my friends at CBS and the dozens of people who kept me on the air," Safer said in a statement. "But most of all, I thank the millions of people who have been loyal to our broadcast."

Said 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager: "Morley has had a brilliant career as a reporter and as one of the most significant figures in CBS News history, on our broadcast and in many of our lives. Morley’s curiosity, his sense of adventure and his superb writing all made for exceptional work done by a remarkable man."

With Safer in declining health, 60 Minutes on Sunday night ran a hourlong tribute to him that he watched from home, CBS said.

Safer's August 1965 piece from Vietnam, in which he witnessed and reported on a U.S. Marines mission that destroyed the village of Cam Ne with flame throwers, matches and cigarette lighters, aired on the CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite.

The segment prompted the U.S. military to issue new rules of engagement and earned the wrath of members of the Lyndon Johnson administration, who called CBS News executives “unpatriotic” and accused Safer of being a communist.

Said Safer in the 2003 book Reporting America at War: An Oral History: “Cam Ne was a shock, I think. It’s hard for me to know exactly, because I was 13,000 miles away, with really lousy communication, so I only got the reverberation of the shock. I think [viewers] saw American troops acting in a way people had never seen American troops act before, and couldn’t imagine.”

In a memorable 1983 segment for 60 Minutes, Safer reported on new evidence that freed Lenell Geter, an engineer who had been wrongly convicted of armed robbery and was serving a life sentence in Texas. (Dorian Harewood played Geter in a 1987 telefilm.)

In 2011, he interviewed Ruth Madoff on 60 Minutes about what she knew about the $65 billion Ponzi scheme orchestrated by her husband, Bernard. “Why would I ever think that there was something sinister going on?” she said.

Safer was among several media types who played themselves on the second season of House of Cards. In the Netflix series, he grilled Francis Underwood, the scandal-plagued politician played by Kevin Spacey.

“Morley Safer asks the hard questions,” series creator Beau Willimon told THR in February 2014. “He’s seen administrations come and go.”

Safer, along with such 60 Minutes cohorts as Don Hewitt, Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley, Andy Rooney, Dan Rather, Steve Kroft and Lesley Stahl, was one of the country’s most widely recognized broadcast journalists.

He could be disarming and whimsical, and his ability to get people to open up led to entertaining interviews with such notables as Katharine Hepburn, Betty Ford, Dolly Parton and Jackie Gleason. Of his ease with Gleason in a 1984 report, Safer self-deprecatingly noted, “We both drink, we both smoke and both play pool. But we connected, and he really got into it.”

“Yes … But Is It Art?” his sly piece for 60 Minutes in 1993, wondered why three basketballs floating in water was considered high-priced contemporary art. A year later, he hosted a CBS News special that marked the retirement of longtime colleague Charles Kuralt.

Safer was born Nov. 8, 1931, in Toronto. He began his career as a reporter for newspapers and wire services in Canada and England and served as a correspondent and producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

In 1961, Safer was the only Western correspondent in East Berlin the night communists began building the Berlin Wall. He joined CBS News in April 1964 as a correspondent based in London, opened the division’s outpost in Saigon in 1965 and was named London bureau chief in 1967, inheriting an office once inhabited by Edward R. Murrow. 

He replaced Harry Reasoner, who left to anchor ABC’s nightly newscast, on 60 Minutes in 1970.

Safer authored Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam in 1990 and in 2009 donated his papers to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.

Safer is survived by his wife of 48 years, Jane; daughter Sarah and her husband Alexander; three grandchildren; and a sister and brother.

In a 2000 interview with the Archive of American Television, Safer talked about his “pretty solid body of work.”

“It's not literary, I wouldn’t presume to suggest that," he said. "But I think you can elevate it a little bit sometimes with the most important part of the medium, which is what people are saying — whether they’re the people being interviewed or the guy who’s telling the story. It’s not literature, but it can be very classy journalism.”