In it for the long run

Sep 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

For years, Milton Berle was known as Mr. Television. He got that moniker by becoming TV’s first superstar back in 1948. Eight years later, Mr. Berle’s reign as a TV superstar was over.
But the true Mr. Television, in our view, is a man who started in the medium two years before Mr. Berle ascended to fame, and who is, 57 years later, still on TV. In other words, he has been on TV about as long as TV has been around. He has appeared on the tube as an actor, as a game show host and, most notably, as a news personality.
He’s Mike Wallace.
A few weeks ago Electronic Media National Editor Michele Greppi caught up with Mr. Wallace as he was starting to prepare his segments for the upcoming season’s “60 Minutes.“
Since Mr. Wallace is a natural storyteller, we present Mr. Wallace’s fascinating story in his own words, as told to Ms. Greppi.
Mike Wallace: I started in television in Chicago in 1946 when I got back out of the Navy. I started in Grand Rapids, Mich., out of the University of Michigan, at WOOD and moved from there down to Detroit at WXYZ. Then I came to Chicago and was free-lance and then worked NBC locally in Chicago, and did the air edition of the Chicago Sun.
And finally, finally, and this is where I picked up with the network at CBS. [The network] was looking for people around the country to bring to New York to go to work. And in 1951, they came out to Chicago and saw some of the things that I was doing and I was offered a contract for $15,000 a year, which was big money. I was being asked to come into the big time, to New York City.
[One of the first shows Wallace did for CBS was “Mike and Buff,” a morning show with his then wife, Buff Cobb. At first the show was titled “Two Sleepy People.”]
We were the first regular color show. That was back in the days when [color TV] was not compatible [with the transmission of black-and-white signals]. It was whirling circles of color, which [was a different transmission system and] somehow came together as a real picture. And there was a big, big fight between CBS and NBC at that time. And CBS won. One of the reasons that it won was because it had a fine lawyer by the name of Dick Salant, who later became the head of the news division. Then after a while, NBC had compatible color.
Peter Goldmark was the engineer for CBS and Bill Paley was fascinated about the possibility of color in television. It was Goldmark who devised this particular color operation. Paley poured millions and millions into it, an immense amount of money, which eventually, of course, went down the drain because of the fact that NBC came up with compatible color.
It was fascinating. You were just happy to have a job and a job that was not a chore, but that was a thoroughly entertaining way to spend your life.
And when I think back to those days, who were some of the people that we worked with back then. Of course, [Edward R.] Murrow and [Fred] Friendly, [Charles] Collingwood, [Eric] Sevareid. [Walter} Cronkite came along. A lot of the people-and this was back in the days of the Tiffany Network, when Bill Paley had decided that he was going to make it what eventually was called the Tiffany Network-and we were all caught up in the excitement.
There was no 555 W. 57th St. Everything was at 485 Madison Ave., the studios and the color show, [which] lasted I think for one season. That broadcast, incidentally, was just an experiment, really, in trying to show people in various department stores, where there were color television sets, that there was something to watch.
[Wallace says he didn’t particularly dress colorfully for the early color TV broadcasts.] You wore what you wore. I remember at the beginning at WBKB in Chicago, where I did my first television. I had been out of the Navy maybe two or three months and I was offered a television [show], I forget what the series was, and I figured this was not going to be for me, because the lights were too damn hot and it made me sick to my stomach. And there was something about you couldn’t wear a white shirt because that would somehow bleed on the screen. So that was when we learned that we had to wear off-whites or blues or whatever.
[In 1955 Wallace left CBS for Channel 5, the DuMont network station in New York.] I was doing, at that time, the 7 and 11 o’clock news on Channel 5. My then partner, Ted Yates, who was an extraordinary reporter, producer, etc., came up with the notion of something called “Night-Beat,” which was an overnight phenomenon.
It was on at 11 o’clock at night, each night, on Channel 5. Everybody began to pay attention to it, because it was the first time that [anyone broadcast] that kind of unvarnished [interview]-up to that time interview broadcasts on radio and television had been pabulum mostly, with the microphone hidden in the flowers on the coffee table in between the interviewer and the interviewee. We just simply did a lot of research and it became an overnight hit.
The first time that I became aware of the fact that people recognized me was during “Night-Beat.” Everybody watched. And it was the first time that somebody really went after [someone on TV], sometimes with nosy, abrasive, interesting questions. And everybody wanted to be on the broadcast because they knew that everybody was watching. So whether it was cab drivers or people in department stores or just people on the street, they said, “Oh, give ’em hell, Mike. Way to go, Mike.” And you can imagine what a kick that was, because I’d been reasonably anonymous all my working life up until then, and in as much as I was born in 1918 I was pushing 40 by the time that began to happen. I finally felt that I had found my metier. That was very, very satisfying, as you can imagine.
Everybody watched. As a result of which, ABC came along and Leonard Goldenson offered me a half-hour once a week on the network [called] “The Mike Wallace Interview.”
[According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, for that show Mr. Wallace was promoted as “Mike Malice” and “The Terrible Torquemada of the TV Inquisition.”]
That lasted for a couple of years until I was weaned to Ch. 13 because we were going to do a half-hour interview program and the first half-hour-believe it or not-the first half-hour newscast in New York, which was called “Newsbeat.”
[Up until then newscasts were] 15 minutes. It was unheard of to have a half-hour local news broadcast. Channel 13 was private. It was independent. The first big sponsor that we had as I remember it was Xerox, which was a little-known-it’s so funny when you think of it-a little-known company that for the first time was beginning to put out something, it looked like purple ink on a paper, for copies.
Anyway, so Ted Yates and I and a fellow by the name of Lou Lomax, who was the first black reporter on television [did the show].
And that is when we, for the first time, began to tell a story about something called the Nation of Islam. Lou Lomax came to interview me for a black magazine and told me about the black Muslims. It caused quite a stir when we told that story of the Nation of Islam and the black Muslims, and Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X and so forth. That’s how Malcolm and I became friends.
[In 1963 Mr. Wallace, having found his calling as a newsman, returned to CBS for good.]
I’ve been blessed with working with three of the great producers of television. First was Ted Yates, whom I met in ’56. Then I came [back] to CBS and Av Westin and I were given the opportunity to do the first half-hour network news show. We did it from 10 to 10:30 in the morning and Cronkite turned it into a half-hour that same night. This would have been September of ’63. Westin was like Yates. He was feisty and a pioneer and would try anything and we just had a good time together. Everybody was having a good time. This is 40 years ago. And then finally Don Hewitt. We lived in a house on East 74th Street, and Hewitt came to visit me one Sunday afternoon. I didn’t really know him well, and he began to talk about the possibility of doing an hour. At that time Hewitt was not in particularly goo
d odor at CBS.
When I say he was in bad odor at CBS News it’s because he was a bit of a cowboy. Again, we’re talking [almost] 40 years ago. He was trying to put together an hour show, a magazine. Harry Reasoner had already been tapped to be the anchor. There was a still unnamed hour that was going to go on. And Hewitt said, “Can you imagine? You’ll have a chance to do those wonderful `Night-Beat’ interviews all over again.” And when he’s in full cry, he’s irresistible. And I’m sure that [CBS News executives] Bill Leonard and Dick Salant had to be persuaded. And, of course, they were. We put together a pilot of sorts. Reasoner was the top banana and I was the second. It must have been February or March of ’68. I was covering Richard Nixon at the time for CBS News. I had to make up my mind what I was going to do: Continue covering Nixon on the chance that he would go to the White House and I would wind up with him, or was I going to go to work with Hewitt.
So I opted for “60 Minutes.” Can you imagine?
Every time I have rolled the professional dice, they have come up seven. If you take the chance, if you believe in yourself and if you are willing to work with somebody you respect and admire-and I did with Yates, Westin and Hewitt-that’s had an immense amount to do with the fact that I have survived and have been reasonably successful.
Television news pioneers
This has been collaboration, always, with Yates and with Westin and with Hewitt. We had such a good time, from the get-go. From 1968 in September, when we finally went on the air, and when you think about it-we’re entering the 35th season-back in those days we would work 10 hours a day, seven days a week and we were doing things that nobody else had ever thought of doing on television.
Yates was a cowboy of sorts. I don’t think Westin was. But Hewitt was an adventurer. He had been in it since the beginning. Talk about doing things that had never been done before in television, he was the guy who was doing it in all kinds of ways. And to work with him in the control room back in those days was to watch-I’m sure there’s a better word to describe, but it was a joy to watch this man help to develop what has become a staple of television news.
You remember the political conventions? Talk about reality shows. That was a reality show. Those were indeed reality shows. Now they’re packaged displays in effect handwritten by the Democrats or the Republicans.
In the early days, what you saw was what was raw and real, back in the days when John Chancellor was led off the floor. “This is John Chancellor reporting from somewhere in captivity,” that kind of thing. To have had the privilege to have taken part in the development of television news-when they tell stories about how Hewitt stole the NBC playbook and then when it was discovered he threw it out of the window, a 24th-story window of a hotel in San Francisco-was really an extraordinary time to be in this business.
We’re still learning, but there was something so brand-new, fresh, honest and untried in it back in those days.
And of course, we were a half-century younger, too.