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- December 01, 1997
- Vol. 48
- No. 22
At 79, the 60 Minutes Man Has Beat Depression and Gained New Perspective
"We'd like to do the story," Wallace tells the ambassador, his back to a window overlooking the Hudson River, "but we're trying to keep peace in the family." This is one of the secrets of 60 Minutes' success: a competition for stories and airtime so relentless it has sparked feuds in which "nobody talked to Mike" for weeks, says fellow 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley. Only when Wallace learns that Amanpour, a 39-year-old correspondent who has been with the show since 1996, is after a somewhat different story and that he can still chase his story if he waits a bit, does Wallace give in. "All right," he says in that unmistakable, deep theatrical voice of his. "Then I shall step aside [pause] for now."
60 Minutes, whose emblematic ticking watch has outlasted a thousand other shows' theme songs, began its 30th season this year. Wallace, whose body clock doesn't tick, will turn 80 next May. Competition from cable and TV newsmagazine copycats has helped reduce the 60 Minutes audience from 40 million in the early '80s to fewer than 20 million now. Still, the show has racked up a record 20 seasons in Nielsen's Top 10. And Wallace, whose personal fountain of youth is assuredly the company of a young, energetic staff and the video undressing of despots, deadbeats and scammers, has just signed a new multimillion-dollar contract that will keep him doing so until he's 83.
"I've never met anyone quite like him," says Bradley, who, at 56, says he can't imagine chasing stories for another 20 years. "But, to be honest, I think Mike has slowed a step." Wallace, despite a morning routine of push-ups and sit-ups, weekly tennis and the fact that he looks nowhere near his age, agrees. But he still travels about 120 days a year and thinks nothing of a weekend trip to Ecuador in pursuit of a hot tip.
"He's a force of nature," says 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt, 74, who sits a few glassed-in cubicles away from Wallace in what is something of a condo for ageless, delinquent senior citizens. "I'm not going to die fishing," says Hewitt. "I don't fish, I don't play golf. Mike is the same. This is what we do, and we're both going to die here in the office."
Wallace, who began his career as a radio announcer and did commercials and a brief stint on Broadway before becoming a CBS news correspondent 34 years ago, nods in agreement. "I love the urgency of what we do," he says. "I like the battles that take place, the jousting. You walk into an airport and someone says, 'Hey, there's that guy.' They admire what we do. There are a lot of other newsmagazines out there now, but people still recognize this as the most responsible and most serious. And it is still about the story. We want the audience to look at what we've turned up and say, 'Holy s—t.' That's still the goal."
But one harder than ever to achieve, partly because 60 Minutes has exposed so many mutts and so much greed and hypocrisy, a cynical public has grown nearly shockproof. Wallace's on-air manner is softer than it was in the days of his most celebrated ambush interviews or in the 1979 segment in which he told the Ayatollah Khomeini that Anwar Sadat had called him a lunatic. But he's still Mike Wallace, and his strength, says 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft, 52, remains "his ability to ask the question that gets to the center of the issue, the core of the person."
Trying to get to the core of Mike Wallace, however, takes some doing. Born Myron Leon Wallace in 1918 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents (his father was an insurance broker, his mother a homemaker) in Brookline, Mass., this is a man who has had four wives, two children and seven grandchildren. Wallace has also experienced a son's death, three crippling bouts of depression and more than one feud with the second-most-recognized 60 Minutes icon.
"Mike is a very, very competitive guy who loves to have his own way," says Morley Safer, 66, who joined Wallace two years after the show began. "But I don't think he's unique in that sense. We have monumental respect for each other's strengths and monumental contempt for each other's weaknesses."
A particularly bitter dustup centered on CBS's 1995 decision to sit on a major scoop. Wallace had a tobacco-industry source primed to blow the whistle on his company's withholding of information about the damaging effects of tobacco, but on the advice of CBS's lawyers, the segment was canceled to forestall a lawsuit. It was an embarrassing moment for 60 Minutes—the fearless watchdog being reduced to a toothless lapdog. Wallace and Safer went on the Charlie Rose show to discuss the debacle. When Safer criticized CBS, Wallace revealed behind-the-scenes details only he was privy to. Safer, who felt out of the loop, accused Wallace of purposely making him look foolish on the air.
"Nonsense," says Wallace, who later patched things up with Safer. "I have the greatest respect for Morley." Safer, whose own contract is up in several months, says that although he plans to renew it, 60 Minutes will not consume him as it does Wallace. "I paint, which is something I do for my soul. Since Mike doesn't have one, it's not something he has to worry about. That's a joke. But his greatest resource is his work, and I don't know that he has any hobbies—other than pulling the wings off insects. That's another joke."
Wallace does have one interest beyond his passion for pursuing stories, one that has intensified in recent years: He is trying to be a better husband and father. Wallace's first marriage, to Kappy Kaphan, a sweetheart at the University of Michigan, ended after he returned to Chicago (where he had been doing radio news) from a Pacific tour as a Navy officer in World War II. (Kaphan later married Bill Leonard, who, when he became president of CBS News, was Wallace's boss.) When Wallace got a chance to do an interview show in New York City, he left his sons Peter and Chris behind and moved East with his new wife, actress Buff Cobb. That marriage, too, fell apart after several years, and a third began in 1955, this one to Lorraine Perigord, an artist. The 1962 death of Wallace's son Peter at 19, in a hiking accident in Greece, prompted him to take a long look in the mirror and make a major life-course correction: Wallace left entertainment for news. "I wanted to do something more substantial," he says. "It was for Peter."
But the news business meant getting calls at all hours and, once, bolting up from Thanksgiving dinner to catch a plane to Tehran. His career kept taking a toll on his family, and Wallace's third marriage ended in 1983. He is "definitely not a touchy-feely kind of guy," says 50-year-old stepdaughter Pauline Dora, of New Canaan, Conn.
"Work has always come first," agrees Chris Wallace, now 50, and the chief correspondent of ABC's Prime Time Live, a show that puts him in competition with his father. As for his dad's leaving him in Chicago years ago, Chris, who is on his second marriage, says, "Those are the choices he made. They are not the choices I have made. He's him, I'm me. Part of it is, he was chasing fame and making it big and proving himself, and that was the motivating force. Because I can see where it has taken him, I hope I've learned from his mistakes. I spend more time with my family and the relationships with my children."
It was stepdaughter Pauline, says Mike, who brought him closer to Chris a few years ago after many years of a somewhat icy relationship. "I said to both Mike and Chris, it would be a terrible, terrible thing if something happened to either of them and they hadn't developed a closer relationship," says Pauline. "I think both of them realized this, and they eased up on each other."
Another factor in Wallace's mellowing, she believes, has been his bouts of depression. The first was triggered in 1982, he says, when Gen. William Westmoreland slapped a libel suit on him (along with CBS and several other parties) for a hard-hitting documentary about government misrepresentation of Vietnam War enemy troops. To Wallace, the broadcast voice of truth and justice, the lawsuit—ultimately dropped—challenged his very being. It also made him the focus of ambush interviews outside the courtroom, a comeuppance that further dismantled him. All this led to a clinical depression that darkens Wallace's face even now as he recalls it. "You feel lower than a snake's belly," he says.
Syndicated humor columnist Art Buchwald, himself a depression sufferer, recalls that "Mike, [novelist] William Styron and I were all going through it, and we sort of held each other up." A few months after Wallace's first bout, the depression resurfaced, and he had a third bout five years ago. Wallace says a
prescription medicine, Zoloft, has kept it under control since then, but his interest in helping others cope with the illness has led to his appearance in a documentary called Deep Blue, directed by stepson Eames Yates and scheduled to air on HBO Jan. 6.
Yates, 41, is the son of Wallace's fourth wife, Mary, a former producer of Face the Nation. Having been in the business, Mary isn't flustered when Mike runs off on a story. She calls friends and does her own globe-trotting, sometimes shopping for pieces to add to their elegant, two-story apartment in a Park Avenue high-rise on New York's Upper East Side. Mary has designed the house in what she calls colonial Indo-China. "I know the job is the most important thing to Mike, but that doesn't bother me," she says. "It gives me a certain independence, and I like that. I wouldn't want the 9 to 5."
Mike and Mary go way back. Her first husband, Ted Yates, produced Night Beat, a one-man show in the '50s that made Wallace's reputation as a pit bull interviewer. Yates was killed in the Mideast in 1967 while working on a documentary. Mary and Wallace remained friends, and in 1984 he invited her to Martha's Vineyard for the weekend. They have been together ever since.
Mary knew from the beginning how to handle Mr. Tough Guy reporter. When she wanted to get married in 1986 and he balked, she snapped him awake with an ultimatum. When he refused to shop with her for furniture, and then whined about what she brought home, she made him sign a contract (and still does): "Because I refused to go shopping with Mary, I promise not to complain, no matter what she brings home." Neither of them likes to talk in the morning, so she had a kitchen built just for him where he has his coffee and listens to Don Imus on the radio. He can't watch TV without a neurotic trigger-finger on the remote control, so she got her own set. It's a wonderful arrangement, Mary says. They laugh, go to dinner, talk news, and neither has been this happy in years. "We feel very safe together," Mary says.
"Do I have regrets?" Wallace asks. "No. What good would regrets do now? Would I do things differently? Yes, but I wasn't wise enough at the time. Life is full of decisions, isn't it? And I've made some of the right ones and some of the wrong ones, but I made the right choices for me. Now that may sound selfish, but that's being honest."
An old 60 Minutes ad hanging on his office wall reads: The four most dreaded words in the English language: Mike Wallace is here. It's not true anymore, says Wallace, whose brusque, peremptory manner once struck fear even in his own staff. He may not be the bulldog of yore, but ask him what he's working on and his eyes get that old, familiar look.
"Come, let me show you something," he says, leading you out of his Emmy-cluttered office and over to a blackboard. The correspondents' names are chalked at the top and under them a list of stories. Wallace has eight scoops working, and he goes through them now, one by one, with the enthusiasm of a cub reporter: "And this? Oh, my, let me tell you. This one is going to be a wonderful, wonderful story..."
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