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People Top 5
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- April 23, 2012
- Vol. 77
- No. 17
1918—2012: Farewell Mike Wallace
The 60 Minutes Legend Was the Ultimate Straight Shooter on Air-and at Home
For 38 years 60 Minutes viewers watched in awe as Wallace did just that: sitting down with his hero Martin Luther King Jr., interviewing Presidents and, in a moment he later regretted, infamously reducing Barbra Streisand to tears. And on April 7, six years after retiring and four years after triple bypass heart surgery, he died at 93 in a long-term care facility in New Canaan, Conn. "Mike Wallace filled the room when he walked in," recalls CBS News chairman and 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager. "He was loud, full of life and often arguing with somebody-just larger than life."
Born Myron Wallace in Brookline, Mass., to Russian immigrants-a wholesale grocer and his disciplinarian wife-Wallace told PEOPLE in 2006 that he was meant to be a journalist. "The combination of my mother and father's personality traits was a good mix for an investigative reporter," he said. "A strong work ethic, a strict doggedness for perfection and then an affable good humor and empathy."
However, it took him decades to arrive at the job that would make him a household name. After discovering radio as a student at the University of Michigan, Wallace accepted a gig at a Grand Rapids station and later as a radio news writer in Chicago. He also started a family with his college sweetheart, becoming the father of two boys, Peter and Chris, who is now the host for Fox News Sunday. (Wallace married four times and was wed to Mary Yates, a TV producer and the widow of his friend and colleague Ted Yates, from 1986 until his death.) After a three-year stint as Naval communications officer during World War II, Wallace worked as an actor, a game show host, announcer-even a pitchman for Parliament cigarettes. "I think he was slightly embarrassed about those years," says Safer. "He felt guilt that he had not put in the early drudgery years of learning to be a reporter, and he showed his insecurity by his aggressive nature."
He honed his edgy interviewing techniques while hosting two late-night news shows in the 1950s, Night Beat and ABC's The Mike Wallace Interview. But in 1962, following the shocking death of his son Peter at 19 in a mountain-climbing accident, Wallace had a professional epiphany. "I knew that the only work I'd do for the rest of my life would be my serious, substantive journalism," he said. "I wanted to do something ... that would have made Peter proud." A year later he became a full-time journalist for CBS and in 1968 helped launch 60 Minutes. "It suited him perfectly," says correspondent Lesley Stahl. "He was fearless and could ask questions that you can't even dream up, and he did it without difficulty."
His interview subjects would agree. Wallace had a knack for producing I-can't-believe-he-said-that moments, including, perhaps most notably, when he informed Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had referred to him as a "lunatic." His 1996 interview with tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand was the basis for the 1999 film The Insider (Christopher Plummer played him onscreen). But the story he felt was most controversial was his 1998 interview with Dr. Jack Kevorkian, which included footage of Kevorkian assisting with a suicide. "We were accused of crossing the line," he said. But "we thought it was in the public interest." No matter the story, "he was going to get to the truth, and that's what motivated him," says Fager. "That's the instinct of a great reporter."
He was willing to expose the truth about himself as well. In 2005 he disclosed his long battle with depression. According to Wallace, a 1982 libel suit brought by Gen. William C. Westmoreland-whom Wallace alleged in a documentary had lied about the strength of enemy forces-triggered such anguish that he attempted suicide. (The case was later dropped.) "I tried to end the pain with sleeping pills," Wallace said. "Thank God Mary found me. She saved my life."
The next few decades were among his most prosperous, and not just professionally. For the past 20 years he worked hard to establish relationships with his family, including seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. "They're all crazy about him," says Dora. Wallace, meanwhile, just felt lucky to live his life. "I've gotten to go around the world and talk to virtually anyone I wanted to, ask them whatever question I wanted to ask," he said. "My God, what a job."
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