"I’m Mike Wallace and the cigarette is Philip Morris." With that introduction every Sunday night on ABC at 10:30 p.m., the nation was introduced to interviews by a TV reporter like no other. The interviews were so different, in fact, from most interviews on TV at the time that the program carried the name “The Mike Wallace Interview.” The show ran on ABC from April 1957 through September 1958. The program then ran another two years in syndication with more original interviews.
In his 2005 memoir “Between You and Me” (co-written with Gary Paul Gates), Wallace, who died at age 93 on April 7, 2012, wrote about the origins of the show. It started in December 1956. At the time Wallace was anchoring the local 11 p.m. news on Channel 5 in New York City. His producer, Ted Yates, came up with an idea for a local interview show that Yates had named “Night Beat.”
“ ‘Night Beat’ was a radical departure from the usual pablum of radio and television interviews,” Wallace wrote in his memoir. “We agreed that, properly primed with solid research, I would ask our guests the kinds of questions that folks in the TV audience might ask for themselves if they had the chance: nosy, irreverent, often confrontational. Within just a couple of months, we knew we were on to something special. The viewers told us so, the TV critics did the same, and best of all, the famous and infamous figures of the time -- politicians, tycoons, entertainers, athletes, just about everyone of any consequence in New York, it seemed -- wanted the chance to test themselves against our role-playing arrogance.”
Within six months ABC offered Wallace and Yates the chance to take the show national. “In making the jump from a local program to the showcase of a coast-to-coast broadcast, Ted Yates and I were determined to maintain the candid, sometime combative style we’d introduced on ‘Night Beat,’” Wallace wrote.
But some of the element of surprise was gone. Wallace says the press was already calling him such names as “Mike Malice” and “The Terrible Torquemada of the TV Inquisition.”
Most TV shows of the era of “The Mike Wallace Interview” are no longer around to be seen today. But soon after the series ended its run, Wallace had the foresight to donate a number of interviews from the show’s first two seasons to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
And you and I have the good fortune that those 65 shows in the collection -- 60 kinescopes and 5 audio tapes -- are available, for free, 24/7, on the Internet here. Wallace says in his memoir that “Of all the interviews I did in that long-ago era of black-and-white television, none was more stimulating for me than my conversations with the grand old man of architecture -- Frank Lloyd Wright.” Wright was 88 years old at the time.
Here's an excerpt of that interview -- which can be found here in its entirety -- that Wallace quotes in his memoir.
MIKE WALLACE: What do you think of church architecture in the United States?
FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT: I think it’s a great shame.
WALLACE: Because it improperly reflects the idea of religion?
WRIGHT: Because it’s a paragon-monkey reflection and not a reflection of religion.
WALLACE: Well, when I walk into St. Patrick’s Cathedral -- and I’m not a Catholic -- but when I walk into St. Patrick’s Cathedral here in New York City, I am enveloped in a feeling of reverence.
WRIGHT: Sure it isn’t an inferiority complex?
WALLACE: Just because the building is big and I’m small, you mean? Ah -- I think not.
WRIGHT: I hope not.
WALLACE: You feel nothing when you go into St. Patrick’s?
WALLACE: Because of what?
WRIGHT: Because it isn’t the thing that really represents the spirit of independence and the sovereignty of the individual. Which I feel should be represented in our edifices devoted to culture.
Another of the Wallace interviews in the Ransom collection worth watching is one with the great silent movie actress Gloria Swanson. Seven years before the interview Swanson had made her great comeback in “Sunset Boulevard,” and by the time of the interview, she was once again out of the public eye. It’s as hard-hitting an interview as any actor has had to endure, and Swanson doesn’t flinch at any of the uncomfortable jabs with which Wallace hits her. Take a look here.
One of the more uncanny thoughts that will likely strike you watching these early Mike Wallace interviews is how much he reminds you of his son, Chris Wallace, who has followed his dad’s footsteps in the pointed interviews he does every Sunday morning on the Fox News Channnel.
And don’t miss the Ransom Center interview Wallace did with 12-year-old Leonard Ross (no relation to me).You can find it here. You’ve most likely never heard of Leonard Ross. The intro to his interview on the Ransom Center website says, “Leonard Ross, a 12-year-old California school boy who won a total of $164,000 on the game shows ‘The Big Surprise’ and ‘The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Challenge,’ by answering questions about the stock market, talks to Wallace about the effects of quiz shows on children, school, politics, eggheads, spanking, mothers, and Santa Claus.”
To Wallace’s credit, he doesn’t alter his bulldog, attack style when talking to the child prodigy. Talking down to Ross would have been an embarrassment.
Sadly, Ross ended up committing suicide at age 39. He had been suffering from severe depression.
Ironically, severe depression also struck Wallace, who later talked about the disease and his own suicide attempt in 1986, a scant year after Ross had committed suicide.
In these early interviews one sees how Wallace perfected his interview style that became the hallmark of his pieces on "60 Minutes."
As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, “The Mike Wallace Interview” was sponsored by Philip Morris, and Wallace would do commercials for the cigarette maker.
Said Wallace in his memoir, “Even after ‘The Mike Wallace Interview’ went off the air, I continued to do commercials for Philip Morris because, frankly, they were a lucrative source of income during a period when I was bouncing from one job to another. When I finally extricated myself form them in the fall of 1962, my decision had nothing to do with cancer or any other health concern.”
What happened is that Wallace wanted to get into network news, and he could not do that and still be a commercial pitchman.
Later, at “60 Minutes,” Wallace became intimately entangled in reporting on the dangers of smoking. The resulting episode, “Up in Smoke,” and the controversy surrounding it was made into the 1999 feature film “The Insider,” starring Al Pacino as then “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman, and Christopher Plummer as Wallace.
We’ll give Wallace the last word, as he comments, in his memoir, about the casting in the movie:
“[E]ven though Al Pacino played a very good Al Pacino, I didn’t recognize much of Lowell Bergman in his rendition. As for Christopher Plummer’s performance, let me just says that it’s not the worst thing in the world to see yourself portrayed on the silver screen by a handsome and urbane Canadian who has been hailed as the most gifted classical actor in North America. I may not know much about how they make movies in Hollywood, but I do know enough to recognize typecasting when I see it.”