Leaving ’20/20,’ But Still a Star

Sep 13, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Barbara Walters and her staff spent much of the summer sorting through 750 interviews done over the past 25 years that have earned her the reputation as the newswoman who gets the biggest celebrity and newsmaker “gets.”

The best of what they found has been molded into a two-hour retrospective, “25 on 20/20,” which will air 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 17.

It is a moment of transition for Ms. Walters but not an ending. She is not, repeat not, leaving ABC News. She is only leaving the anchor desk of “20/20,” the network’s signature newsmagazine. She is ready to put behind her the week-in, week-out effort it takes to have interviewed every president and first lady since Richard Nixon, countless potentates and heads of state and an encyclopedic list of the stars of movies, TV, music and scandals.

Ms. Walters will continue to make twice-a-week appearances on “The View,” the weekday hour she conceived for ABC, and she will produce a handful of prime-time specials each year and will contribute occasionally to ABC News.

TelevisionWeek’s Michele Greppi recently interviewed Ms. Walters on a wide range of subjects:

TelevisionWeek: Are you having fun with this last flurry of activity?

Barbara Walters: The show that I’m doing on the 17th is finished. We’ve been working on it for months and it’s wonderful; and I love it, love it, love it. We had to go through 750 interviews to boil it down. I had time to look at a lot of stuff and to see how different I looked, or how better I looked, or how better I look now.

TVWeek: Were there any times when you thought, `My god, what were all of us thinking?’ wardrobewise?

Ms. Walters: There’s one outfit I have-and I can’t remember the interview-I’m wearing a pink suit I think was an Adolfo with a little bow tie at the neck and curly hair. It’s so awful. It’s so fun to see that. As I said at one point, `Welcome to “25 Years on `20/20,”‘ or the retrospective of hairstyles’-which a lot of people say, so it’s not that original.

TVWeek: Which category of interviews was the hardest to pare down? Because aside from a cavalcade of hair, it’s a cavalcade of the public’s interests.

Ms. Walters: They were all sort of hard to pare down, because you get involved and you want to see more. The big problem with this was not what to put in. Truthfully, the only category we have on twice-once in each hour-are the murderers, because they are so fascinating, even though it may be dreadful. It turned out that I did so many. I left out the interview with the Ramseys. I left out the interview with Klaus von Bulow. I did the first interview with both of them. We thought there were others who were more, not important, but you know, like Mark David Chapman or the Menendez brothers, which really were much more dramatic.

I think the toughest one, and the one that just every time I look at it was the most important assignment I’ve ever had, was 9/11, when we went and talked to the victims of Windows on the World.

But then there are things you’ve never seen before, like Betty Ford inebriated in an interview that we never could run. We had to cut it way down.

TVWeek: Did you know at the time exactly what was going on?

Ms. Walters: Oh, yes.

TVWeek: Did you go ahead and conduct the entire interview?

Ms. Walters: I did it, but I also realized I couldn’t continue it. When we show it on the air, you can tell; but then we also show the first interview that Betty Ford did after she was sober and had founded the Betty Ford Institute, so it’s a wonderful contrast.

We have every president and first lady since Richard Nixon.

TVWeek: Did you call Mrs. Ford and ask, `Is this all right with you?’-something you might otherwise not do?

Ms. Walters: No, I didn’t, because the way we have handled it is with great grace. As we have said, if people had not known of her problem, I would never have done it, but people did, so we do it as a kind of then and now, you know: This is this interview when she was taking painkillers, and look at the difference a few years later when she really changed her voice in this country.

TVWeek: There has been talk in Seattle among people who have staked out Mary Kay Letourneau that you have been very much in that hunt.

Ms. Walters: I had talked to Mary Kay Letourneau many years ago. And I talked to her again, because I think she felt comfortable with me. But since I’m leaving at the end of this month, it’s not something I’m going to be able to do.

TVWeek: That wouldn’t be something that could be one of those occasional contributions that have been talked about?

Ms. Walters: Well, I don’t know what the time period is when she wants to do something.

TVWeek: What do you wish were still a big dynamic in television today? As you watch all these interviews-

Ms. Walters: If I still thought that way. I decided a year and a half ago to leave, and I know there are going to be interviews I’m going to want to do. On the other hand, I did an interview almost every single week last year. And there are a great many interviews, not that I don’t want to do, but what I will not regret is the continual booking, which I think everybody in this business deplores. You know, call the lawyer, call the agent, call the agent, call the lawyer, call the publicity person, call the et cetera. I won’t miss that. I will have five specials a year that I’ll be doing. I don’t want to leave the show on Sept. 24 and then on Oct. 1 have a piece on. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.

When there are things that come up that seem important, that only I can do, that seem best for me … you know I love the show and I’ll be doing special editions of `20/20′ that may be part of my specials. Right now the first special I’m committed to is `The Ten Most Fascinating People’ in December. But there may be something before that. Right now I’ve just been awfully busy just trying to finish this program for this week.

TVWeek: What is the final interview, the sign-off?

Ms. Walters: I have a whole montage, and it’s really quite funny, of people saying goodbye. Not goodbye; `Thank you.’ It’s a whole bunch of funny ways of people over the years saying thank you.

I also have a special section of all the people crying-even though I don’t make them cry, there’s a whole section on people crying.

There are little tidbits, what we call moments, in addition to the interviews.

TVWeek: People have always made fun of that, but now there are whole genres built around shows in which the guests and the hosts get to this emotional moment.

Ms. Walters: Yep. Yeah. I won’t make people cry on-air, but [if] they start to cry I stop them, but I watch interview after interview in which people are crying. But … if you do the kind of interviews that I did, especially with celebrities, where you talk to them about their childhood and about their mother and father or you talk to them about their children, you talk to them about the things that are tenderest to them, they cry. They’re crying out of sentiment. They’re never crying out of anger.

TVWeek: And a lot of your interviews are coming out of a time of crisis.

Ms. Walters: That’s right. It’s kind of, `How did you get through this? Tell me about it.’

TVWeek: Can you satisfy a lot of the same interests you’ve always had through `The View’?

Ms. Walters: No, `The View’ is not the same. It never has been. `The View’ for me is like the most wonderful whipped cream. I love those women. I will continue to do it two days a week. `The View’ has nothing to do with ABC News. And that would not change.

Will there be a time, now and then, when I miss something, when the warhorse says, `Why aren’t I … ?’ But I thought about that a year and a half ago, and I’m at peace with it.

If there’s something we really think is special, we’ll do a special. Or I’ll do it for `20/20.’

But what I won’t be doing is the week-in, week-out. I have never been able to just travel. I plan to take several trips this year that I’ve never been able to take. The week after I get off the air I’m going away with my daughter for a week. These are things I’ve never been able to do. Never, in 25 years. There
was always a next story, the next this, the next that, the next one. You can’t go here, you can’t go there, we don’t know what’s coming up. And remember: I was doing `20/20′ along with three specials a year, along with `The View.’

TVWeek: I’ve never understood why, at a certain point, you couldn’t just say, `I have earned …’

Ms. Walters: Ah, my dear, you used to ask me that. I have finally been able to say it. I didn’t want to say when it had lost its enjoyment for me. Also last year for me, `20/20′ was a big year. I really did want to leave at the top.

My old contract has another full year to go. If I had then decided not to re-sign, I would have heard, `Her contract was up and they didn’t re-sign her.’ Now, that’s not why I did it, but that’s what I would have heard. And I know there are some people who go on and on, and it’s wonderful for them, and their entire life is their work, and God knows I understand that …

TVWeek: And just yesterday [Barbara Walters] was one of them?

Ms. Walters: Well, the reason I can do this is that I never was totally one of those, so I used to just try to do it all.

TVWeek: So when you’re not going to be on a trip, and when you’re not going to be on `The View’ or going to be knee-deep in a special, what is a kick-back day?

Ms. Walters: For me? Well, first of all, the fact that I can take a trip. That’s kick-back. I’m going to be able to have time to see a friend! To have lunch! I’m always looking at my watch, my BlackBerry or cellphone. I don’t have to do that.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I won’t be working. Five specials a year is a lot of specials. That’s one every two months. But it’s something I can pick and choose, and some will have themes. And some I will do for `20/20′ and for [executive producer] David Sloan. I already have `Ten Most Fascinating People.’ I already have the Academy Awards in February, without even thinking of any others.

I want to take Spanish lessons.

TVWeek: Spanish lessons?

Ms. Walters: Yeah. Everybody speaks Spanish. I want to speak Spanish.

TVWeek: That’s great.

Ms. Walters: When I was coming back this fall after this summer, because I worked a lot this summer, I had to do a lot of this preparation, ordinarily I’d be coming back with dread. I would have books I’d had to read all summer. I would have had to call this lawyer and that lawyer, and that agent. And the fact that I don’t have to do that, I cannot tell you how smiling I am.

That doesn’t mean it’s for everybody, but it’s right for me. You and I have talked about this for years.

TVWeek: No more woulda, coulda, shouldas. But can there be no more woulda, coulda, shouldas?

Ms. Walters: I don’t seem to feel that way now. There are going to be times when I say, `Ohhh, would I have loved to have done that.’ And I have to realize that there are other things I have gotten so that I don’t miss that.

Because it isn’t as if because I am leaving, there isn’t going to be another big story.