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People Top 5
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PEOPLE Top 5 are the most-viewed stories on the site over the past three days, updated every 60 minutes
- May 28, 1979
- Vol. 11
- No. 21
Inside 60 Minutes
What Makes 60 Minutes Tick? Rivalries, Tantrums and a Genius Referee Named Don Hewitt
This morning, as Hewitt bounces into the sterile gray control room, Rather is up first, on the center of the 32 monitor screens, to introduce next Sunday's show. Don glances at a script, listens, then abruptly leans into a microphone. "Do it again, Dan," he directs. "It sounds terrible." Dan, miffed, adjusts his tie, rolls his throat and takes it from the top. This time, at the finish, Hewitt, a virtuoso stroker of egos, shouts, "Sensational!" and moves onto the Safer screen. Halfway into Morley's lead, Don jumps in: "Hey, try that over." And so it goes.
Hewitt invented 60 Minutes—the only nonfiction show in the Nielsen Top Ten—back in 1968, and he remains its most indispensable person. "You take Don out," admits Rather, "and the whole thing collapses." A high-strung, impassioned 30-year veteran at CBS, Hewitt has, far more than any of his better-known cast or bosses, changed the look and history of TV journalism. (Yet the thrice-married producer probably earned more notoriety for trying to put the make on short-time CBS colleague Sally Quinn, an attempt she described in her 1975 book.)
None of this is to discount the on-camera incumbents. Wallace is still, at 61, the toughest interviewer on television. Reasoner, 56, the show's original correspondent, is considered a bit indolent by some colleagues since his ABC interregnum. It may just be that he likes to see his seven children. He also spends more time socializing with cronies than his more driven colleagues. In any case, Harry is one of the most gifted writers in the business. Safer, 47, is another maestro wordman and one of TV's most sophisticated reporters. Rather, also 47, is a demon worker and a favorite of the fans—especially females.
All four men are in the $200,000 to half-million bracket—and earn it. Likewise Hewitt, whom CBS regards as so valuable that it has dispensed with the usual three-or five-year newsman's contract and tied him up until retirement. Not the least of the reasons is Don's way with his on-air heroes. "Hewitt is a master at working with prima donnas, including this one," says Rather. "If things get hot, he calls you in, closes the door and says, 'We're not a bunch of Hollywood bitches, so swallow your pride.'"
There is constant jockeying over which correspondent gets the lead piece each week and who accrues the most air time. Over more niggly points too. When a third man, Rather, was added three seasons ago, Hewitt meticulously tape-measured out their three small, windowless offices to be sure they were identical to the inch.
"Show me a person with no temperament and I'll show you a person with no talent," Hewitt maintains. "Dan didn't want to ruffle feathers when he first came aboard. Then he realized ruffling feathers is what Mike and Morley do. He's joined that crowd, and he does it beautifully." Hewitt is the feather-smoother even when he sometimes tinkers with his stars' work in the editing room at odd hours like 5 a.m. "Don is a people-pleaser and hates like hell to tell you he has made a change," notes Rather. "You then see the show Sunday night and scream, 'Jesus Christ, he took that out!' " Hewitt himself watches every minute of every show on air, including the updated reruns that began this month. Still as excited as a cub producer, he doesn't even wait until the 60th minute to phone praise to his boys. Safer recalls often being rung up during commercial breaks.
Thus inspired, each man logs 200,000 miles a year chasing stories for Don, and all are away from their wives at least nine months of the 12. They all do 30 stories a year and, says Rather in his Texas cowboy parlance, "You feel like you've been ridden hard and put to bed wet." Wallace adds, "You find yourself counting the pieces until the end. And remember, Rather and Safer are 14 years younger than I am." He pauses, then cracks, "Of course, Harry is 104."
Ribbing and infighting aside, everyone is in awe of Hewitt, who drives none of his staff of 70 harder than himself. The show has 21 producers and 20 film editors. (Within CBS it is enviously referred to as "60 Producers" because of the swollen staff.) Wallace marvels at Hewitt's technical expertise: "He can watch a piece once and have total video recall—expressions, words and timing. It is a superb gift. I can't do it." Even Don's tantrums are considered a plus. "The technicians love them," says Reasoner. "It makes life interesting." The program's internal politics are, in Dan's term, "participatory anarchy." Hewitt prides himself on running a loose shop, and anyone is free to criticize, including secretaries and audio engineers. He is an unconventional executive, operating without memos. There hasn't been a staff meeting since 1977.
Don Hewitt was born in the New York suburb of New Rochelle, the son of an advertising manager for the Hearst publications. "When other kids were playing cops and robbers, I was playing reporter," says Don. "I used to think I was Hildy Johnson [of The Front Page]." Though he went to New York University on a track scholarship, he dropped out his freshman year—"My marks were so bad I became ineligible for the team."
He went to the New York Herald Tribune as a copy boy and claims to have become at 20 the youngest correspondent in World War II, working for Stars and Stripes. Then, in 1948, he became telephoto editor for Acme News Pictures and was up to $100 a week when CBS made a pitch. "My boss was stunned: 'You are going to take a $20-a-week cut to work for something called television?' At times in the night," reports Don, "I get chills thinking how close I came to not taking that cut."
Six months after he joined CBS, a director slot opened on the then pioneering 15-minute Douglas Edwards with the News. Hewitt proved a natural in the new medium. Among other innovations, he invented cue cards, "supers" (subtitles which identify the people, place or time shown), and the "double-projector" system, which vastly smoothed the visual presentation of the news.
In 1960 Don was the producer-director of the famed first "Great Debate" between Nixon and Kennedy. He was also the first executive producer two years later when Walter Cronkite took over the evening news. Eventually, however, Hewitt's flamboyance, Chuck Barris-like enthusiasm and competitive excesses grated CBS brass. His conservative bosses blanched, for example, when they learned Hewitt had pilfered NBC's '64 election handbook at a joint network meeting. (In 1975 they accepted with more equanimity Don's paying $10,000 to an ex-con who promised to unearth Hoffa's body—the thug took off with the money, and CBS is still awaiting the corpse.)
Hewitt was relieved of his Cronkite duties in 1964 but so skillfully that he was flattered. As CBS News President Bill Leonard recalls the incident: "Fred Friendly [then the president] called in Don and said something like, 'I know how constricted you are there. You are so alive, filled with ideas, inventive, creative, bubbling with plans—in short, a genius. You are the one to let loose on the world out there.' Don became terribly excited and ran home to tell his wife. She looked at him and said, 'Don, you've been fired.' He grabbed his head," Leonard continues, "and exclaimed, 'My God, you are right.'" For a while Hewitt stewed in the limbo of the documentary unit with a one-secretary staff and very few projects. But with all that spare time, the idea of 60 Minutes began to germinate. He outlined the idea for Wallace who remembers: "I was fascinated, but I didn't think it would stand a chance."
Over the years Wallace became the correspondent closest to Hewitt, and in 1977 Mike played matchmaker, urging Don to call up Marilyn Berger, a former newspaper woman who was then covering the White House for NBC. "Everything was fine in his professional life," says Mike. "But until Marilyn, there was a hole in his personal life. His second marriage was over. He was lonely and looking." After his first date, Don called Mike and said, "What a bore. All this inside Washington talk. What makes you think I have any interest?" Wallace ordered, "Try once more." "Oh, we have a date tonight," replied Hewitt. Berger remembers a more dramatic courtship: "I read Sally Quinn's book, We're Going to Make You a Star, and for some reason thought Hewitt was a round, bald-headed, funny-looking man. I opened the door and there was this gorgeous guy." Shortly thereafter Marilyn moved to Manhattan to live with Don on Central Park South. "I gave up the White House for the man I love," she quips. "Really," says Don, "she was tired of reading captions on the White House lawn." Last April she became his third wife on builder William Levitt's $15 million yacht in the Caribbean. Norton Simon Chairman David Mahoney was best man and his wife, Hillie, the matron of honor. "It was every woman's dream," says Berger, who now anchors Special Edition, a public TV show in metropolitan New York. "I get 400,000 viewers to his 40 million," she laments.
Don's first wife, Mary Weaver, died in the early 1960s. His second, Frankie Hewitt, now runs Ford's Theater in Washington, and he has two sons (both in TV production, one with CBS) and a daughter. Don, who also has a grandson, 8, is not quite the macho man Sally Quinn painted in her book. "I tried to take her to bed," Hewitt admits. "And she said 'No' and that was it." Quinn also quotes him as saying, "If I can't sleep with you, I'll sleep with Barbara Walters." Don laughs off that one, insisting, "Barbara and I are like brother and sister." In any case, the Hewitts and Quinn and her husband, Ben Bradlee, are now close friends. "The first time I saw Sal after the book was published," says Don, "I broke the place up by saying, 'Hey, Sal, how much did you make on our book?' "
It is safe to say that lust is not Hewitt's major drive. "I have never seen a man so eager to get to work in the morning," reports new wife Berger, 43. He breakfasts on dry toast and grapefruit. (Yes, like everyone else lately, he's been on the Scarsdale Diet.) He almost always lunches in the CBS cafeteria, trying out new jokes on his troops. ("He's a 7 on a scale of 10," reports Rather.) Don also unwinds with Scrabble, poker and predictably enthusiastic tennis at his home in the Long Island Hamptons. "Relaxing tires me out," he grins.
He professes to be unconcerned over complaints about the show's too-familiar gambit of bullying ambushes but does worry that it could become a caricature of itself ("I don't want to look like we're Chevy Chase doing 60 Minutes"). The one criticism most on Hewitt's mind these days is the absence of a female correspondent. Confronted with the fact that only three of his 21 producers are women, Hewitt tries to explain, "A lot of things get talked about in the men's room standing at the urinals, which puts them at a disadvantage." Wallace, who works (and constantly squabbles) with one of the three, Marion Goldin, is regarded as the resident chauvinist. "It is time for a woman correspondent," he double-talks. "But it would be hard for a woman. It is a physical killer."
Perhaps the closest Hewitt got was an audition tape of actress Candice Bergen several years ago. But she said she wasn't eager to take on a year-round commitment, and then asked, "Would you pay me as much as Mike Wallace?" Hewitt sputtered, "No, why should we? Would Mike make as much as you if he worked in one of your movies?'" Bergen's retort: "He wouldn't help my movie, but I'd help his TV show." "It was a foolish idea," snaps Wallace. And Rather adds, "Candy is heady, but someone inexperienced would be ravaged." Hewitt agrees. His old pal Barbara Walters, on the other hand, has become too expensive, and Hewitt acknowledges that he told her about 20 years ago she would never make it as a TV journalist. "A mistake," Don admits with a smile. One of his very few.
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