Mike Wallace, the CBS reporter who became one of the nation’s best-known broadcast journalists as an interrogator of the famous and infamous on “60 Minutes,” died on Saturday. He was 93.
On its Web site, CBS said Mr. Wallace died at a care facility in New Canaan, Conn., where he had lived in recent years. Mr. Wallace, who was outfitted with a pacemaker more than 20 years ago, had a long history of cardiac care and underwent triple bypass heart surgery in January 2008.
A reporter with the presence of a performer, Mr. Wallace went head to head with chiefs of state, celebrities and con artists for more than 50 years, living for the moment when “you forget the lights, the cameras, everything else, and you’re really talking to each other,” he said in an interview with The New York Times videotaped in July 2006 and released on his death as part of the online feature “The Last Word.”
Mr. Wallace created enough such moments to become a paragon of television journalism in the heyday of network news. As he grilled his subjects, he said, he walked “a fine line between sadism and intellectual curiosity.”
His success often lay in the questions he hurled, not the answers he received.
“Perjury,” he said, in his staccato style, to President Richard M. Nixon’s right-hand man, John D. Ehrlichman, while interviewing him during the Watergate affair. “Plans to audit tax returns for political retaliation. Theft of psychiatric records. Spying by undercover agents. Conspiracy to obstruct justice. All of this by the law-and-order administration of Richard Nixon.”
Mr. Ehrlichman paused and said, “Is there a question in there somewhere?”
No, Mr. Wallace later conceded. But it was riveting television.
Both the style and the substance of his work drew criticism. CBS paid Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman $100,000 for an exclusive (if inconclusive) pair of interviews with Mr. Wallace in 1975. Critics called it checkbook journalism, and even Mr. Wallace conceded later that it had been “a bad idea.”
For a 1976 report on Medicaid fraud, the show’s producers set up a phony health clinic in Chicago. Was the use of deceit to expose deceit justified? Hidden cameras and ambush interviews were all part of the game, Mr. Wallace said, though he abandoned those techniques in later years, when they became a cliché and no longer good television.
Some subjects were unfazed by Mr. Wallace’s unblinking stare. When he sat down with the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian leader, in 1979, he said that President Anwar Sadat of Egypt “calls you, Imam — forgive me, his words, not mine — a lunatic.” The translator blanched, but the Ayatollah responded, calmly calling Sadat a heretic.
He set his sights on CBS News and joined the network as a special correspondent. He was soon anchoring “The CBS Morning News With Mike Wallace” and reporting from Vietnam. Then he caught the eye of Richard Nixon.
Running for president, Nixon offered Mr. Wallace a job as his press secretary shortly before the 1968 primaries began. “I thought very, very seriously about it,” Mr. Wallace told The Times. “I regarded him with great respect. He was savvy, smart, hard working.”
But Mr. Wallace turned Nixon down, saying that putting a happy face on bad news was not his cup of tea.
Only months later “60 Minutes” made its debut. The trademark ticking of the Tag Heuer stopwatch marked the moment.
It was something new on the air: a “newsmagazine,” usually three substantial pieces of about 15 minutes each — a near-eternity on television. Mr. Wallace and Harry Reasoner were the first co-hosts, one fierce, one folksy.
The show was the brainchild of Don Hewitt, a producer who was “in bad odor at CBS News at the time,” Mr. Wallace said in the interview.
“He was unpredictable, difficult to work with, genius notions, a genuine adventurer, if you will, in television news at that time,“ Mr. Wallace said of Mr. Hewitt, who died in 2009.
The show, which moved to Sunday nights at 7 in 1970, was slow to catch on. Creative conflict marked its climb to the top of the television heap in the 1970s. Mr. Wallace fought his fellow correspondents for the best stories and the most airtime.
“There would be blood on the floor,” Mr. Wallace said in the interview. He said he developed the “not necessarily undeserved reputation” of being prickly — he used a stronger word — and “of stealing stories from my colleagues,” who came to include Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, Dan Rather and Diane Sawyer in the 1970s and early 1980s.
“This was just competition,” he said. “Get the story. Get it first.”
Mr. Wallace and his teams of producers — who researched, reported and wrote the stories — took on American Nazis and nuclear power plants along with his patented brand of exposés.
The time was ripe for investigative television journalism. Watergate and its many seamy sideshows had made muckraking a respectable trade. By the late 1970s “60 Minutes” was the top-rated show on Sundays. For five consecutive years it was the No. 1 show on television, a run matched only by “All in the Family” and “The Cosby Show.” Mr. Wallace was rich and famous and a powerful figure in television news when his life took a stressful turn in 1982.
Mr. Wallace officially retired from “60 Minutes” in 2006, after a 38-year run, at the age of 88. A few months later he was back on the program with an exclusive interview with the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Mr. Wallace replied: “What do you think? Is it a good idea to retire?” He won his 21st Emmy award for the interview.
And he kept working. Only weeks before his 2008 bypass surgery, he interviewed the baseball star Roger Clemens as accusations swirled that Mr. Clemens had used performance-enhancing drugs.
Myron Leon Wallace was born in Brookline, Mass., on May 9, 1918, one of four children of Friedan and Zina Wallik, who had come to the United States from a Russian shtetl before the turn of the 20th century. (Friedan became Frank and Wallik became Wallace in the American melting pot.) His father started as a wholesale grocer and became an insurance broker.
Myron came out of Brookline High School with a B-minus average, worked his way through the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and graduated in 1939. (Decades later he was deeply involved in two of the university’s programs for journalists: the Livingston Awards, given to talented reporters under 35, and the Knight-Wallace fellowships, a sabbatical for midcareer reporters; its seminars are held at Wallace House.)