“I knew as soon as I walked into the campus radio station that I was hooked,” 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace says of his first experience in broadcasting while a sophomore at the University of Michigan in 1936. “I was fascinated by the whole process. Utterly content.”
Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on May 9, 1918, Wallace began his broadcasting career in radio in Michigan on Grand Rapids’ WOOD, which hired him as an announcer who also handled news, community affairs, quiz shows and commercials.
Following his discharge from the Navy in 1946, Wallace joined a Chicago radio station and was heard on his first interview program, Famous Names.
In the late 1940s, Wallace met the actress Buff Cobb, and soon after she became Wallace’s wife and broadcasting partner. In 1951, the duo became afternoon favorites on CBS Television’s Mike and Buff.
Comparing Mike and Buff to the other husband-and-wife shows that were popular at the time, Wallace says. “There were Tex and Jinx, and Dorothy and Dick, and Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy, but they were all very civil to each other. Mike and Buff argued with each other. We bickered. We were the real life Bickersons.”
Following the demise of the program and the marriage, in 1955 Wallace was hired by the Dumont network station in New York to anchor the early evening and late-night news programs. By the following summer, the late-night news had been transformed into Night Beat, a live interview program that was quintessentially Wallace.
“Up to then, interviews on radio and television had been ritual minuets,” says Wallace, “with the microphone hidden in the bunch of flowers on the coffee table. What we did was fill the screen with the interviewee and just a black backdrop and that was it. One-on-one. I used to smoke in those days, and the smoke would curl up between me and the interviewee. It was fascinating to watch.
“I developed a style calculated to make the audience believe that I was proxy for them, even if in asking my questions I occasionally made the object of my scrutiny uncomfortable. Chances are, they were going to be more responsive if I asked my questions in a direct, occasionally abrupt fashion. My style was insistent, sometimes abrasive, but after light more than heat.
“I’ve been fortunate to have had as few ‘lean years’ as I’ve had in 50 years. The lean years were actually when it was taking me forever to make up my mind about what I really wanted to do. In those early years, if you had any versatility in broadcasting, you could do commercials and dramas and narrations and panel shows and interview shows and news. And I did.”
By the early 1960s, however, Wallace’s versatility proved to be an obstacle to his career development. “By then things had changed,” he says, “and if you were not doing the news exclusively, you were not going to do news at all. I was trying to straighten out my feelings about myself and my life, and it became apparent to me that I felt no sense of usefulness. So I simply said to myself, ‘I’ve got enough dough to last a year, and I’m going to see if I can go to work at a network and do a good day’s work as a reporter.’
“So I quit everything and wrote letters to ABC, CBS and NBC. I said I was going to ‘sanitize’ myself by getting away from commercials and panel shows and everything of that sort and that the time might come when they would want to hire me in the news division. I didn’t hear from any of them. So I went out to Los Angeles and negotiated a job at KTLA. But before I accepted, Dick Salant, the president of CBS News, called. He made an offer, and it took me about half a second to think it over. It was a cut in salary of about 80 percent, but it was what I wanted to do.”
Dick Salant recalls his first experience with Wallace. “I was asked to appear as a guest on Night Beat,” Salant says. “Mike had a reputation for being a very tough interviewer, but like all the other half-wits who subjected themselves to Mike, I thought I was smarter than he was. He lacerated me. He spotted every weak point in my arguments and did a marvelous job. I was very impressed. I was up against a master. When I took him on at CBS there was a good deal of questioning among some of the more traditional people at CBS News who said, ‘Why are you taking this fellow on? He’s a performer.’ But I thought he was a very good journalist.”
Says Wallace, “There was a time when I used to wince at being called a performer because that had overtones of being less than a reporter. But it’s important for a reporter to be able to perform capably and get what is in the brain out of your mouth and into that tube in a way that will interest the audience. I’m better at what I do because of the variety of experience I had over that first quarter century of my career.”
In 1968, CBS Producer Don Hewitt (inducted into the Hall of Fame last year) recruited Wallace for a new and then untitled prime-time newsmagazine program. “I was persuaded we were going on the air and that it was going to be exciting,” Wallace says. “There was a sense of being caught up in something new, interesting and different.”
60 Minutes, as the program came to be called, foundered in the ratings for several years before CBS scheduled it at 7 p.m. on Sundays. In the early 1970s, the program zoomed to the top of the Nielsen’s. As the 1991-92 season begins, 60 Minutes ranks as the number-two-rated program.
“At a time when America was thirsting to get behind the facade of Vietnam and Watergate, the kinds of investigations we did were thought to be remarkable, groundbreaking. And there was no Nightline; there was no CNN. There was no place for people to go to do long interviews or investigations. What we were doing was unheard of.
“I like to get past the bullshit. I try to get to the bottom of a story, and it’s the process that interests me, collaborating with people who are younger, brighter, hungrier than I am. And everything feeds into getting information out of the object of our scrutiny.
“I have to rub up against people,” Wallace says, “I want to hit the road. There’s a constant commerce of ideas here at 60 Minutes. The audience cares about it, plus there’s a salary that’s beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Can you think of a better way to earn a living?”
Hewitt says, “Mike and I have a love-hate relationship: 99-percent love, one-percent hate.
“The one-percent hate comes on sometime in the early hours of the morning in an editing room amid the stale air, the stale coffee and the stale sandwiches, when two very old and very devoted friends are ready to all but choke each other to death.
“And out of nowhere — out of 23 years of working together — the right line or the right word dawns on both of us at almost the same moment and … Presto chango! Abracadabra! — Another Mike Wallace 60 Minutes piece comes together, and we’re in love again until the next late-night editing session.
“It would take me 23 years to say what Mike has meant to 60 Minutes. He’s the spark plug. He not only drives himself, he drives all of us. Mike has risen to the top by being as good a reporter as there is anywhere on earth. You can’t compromise with Mike. It’s all or nothing.”
Says Salant, “The secret to Mike is that as tough as he is, he is also one of the most loyal, kind, thoughtful people I’ve ever come across. If it ever became known what a sweet, soft guy he is, it would ruin his reputation.”
“My father has an inherent curiosity and an inherent skepticism,” says his son, ABC news correspondent Chris Wallace. “A lot of people just see things and accept them. He always asks why, which is a very good trait, and he always asks in two or three different ways. He never accepts the first or the easy answer. He’s always going to peel back the layers of the onion.”
Although Wallace has said publicly for several years that he would leave 60 Minutes when “my toes curl up,” he has recently begun to look again at his options. “I’ve got to stay here for 25 years — that’s two more years now — and then, who knows? That doesn’t mean I’ll quit the business, but you don’t want to stay past your time on a broadcast. There are all kinds of things still to do.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Mike Wallace's induction in 1991.