05/22/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT
Holding hands with his wife, Mary, in the living room of his Manhattan apartment, Mike Wallace is doing something millions of viewers of television's 60 Minutes have never seen him do. Mike Wallace is gushing: His wife is a wonderful cook, his closest friend, she saved his life. Sometimes, he says, he doodles their initials inside a heart "and then I draw an arrow through it." Mary smiles: "Isn't that sweet?" It's not an adjective Wallace has readily brought to mind during 38 years of interviews with world leaders, celebrities and corporate chieftains—all in his famously pugnacious style. "I wasn't sweet on-air," says the 88-year-old Wallace. "That's for sure."
But now it's time to be bittersweet. Wallace is calling it quits this spring, and as he reclines on his white sofa, he's looking back on a show he helped turn into one of the most popular and imitated in television history. He was 60 Minutes' self-described "bad guy," going one-on-one with the world's strongest personalities, whether he was telling the Ayatollah Khomeini that Anwar Sadat called him a lunatic or getting Louis Farrakhan to admit he might have helped incite others to kill Malcolm X. "For 38 years I've gotten to go around the world and talk to virtually anyone I wanted to, ask them whatever question I wanted to ask. What a job," Wallace says. So why leave? "Let's face it," he chuckles, "I'm not 85 anymore."
Trim and perpetually suntanned, he looks and talks like a man decades younger. But Wallace's longevity with 60 Minutes helped the show stay ahead of its competitors, winning him 20 Emmys and 3 Peabody awards along the way. "If they were allowed to put plaques up at CBS for the three journalists who would stand out, they would be Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace," says 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt. "He could be infuriating and we fought a lot. But ... it was always about the story." Not even friends were exempt. Nancy Reagan, who has known Wallace since the 1940s, once didn't speak to him for months after a contentious 1989 interview in which he asked about $2 million in speaking fees she and President Reagan received. "There were a couple of times he was a little hard on us, and he annoyed me; I was mad," says Reagan. "But in the end, what you have is friendship. That's what's lasted."
Born Myron Leon Wallace in Brookline, Mass., to Russian-immigrant parents, Wallace never imagined the heights he would reach. His father, Frank, was a well-loved man who ran a wholesale grocer. His mother, Zina, was a dour woman and stern disciplinarian to him and his three siblings. "She didn't dish out praise. It was always, 'Myron, you can do better than that,'" Wallace says. When Wallace went to the University of Michigan, he expected to become a lawyer or English teacher. His destiny changed, however, when he stumbled across a radio studio on campus. "I'd found my calling," he says.
After college Wallace worked radio jobs in Detroit and Chicago and was a communications officer in the Navy for three years during World War II. He also started a family. Married four times, Wallace would have three children, including Chris, an anchor with Fox News, and Pauline Dora, a businesswoman. In 1951 CBS came calling. Wallace did everything at the burgeoning television station: news, commercials and quiz shows. It wasn't until 1956 that Wallace hit his journalistic stride. He left CBS for a local New York station and pioneered a hard-hitting interview style on Night Beat. "We asked prominent people questions that I thought viewers would want asked," Wallace says. "People suddenly knew who Mike Wallace was."
As his professional life took off, his personal life was touched by tragedy. His oldest son, Peter, 19, disappeared in 1962, while traveling through Greece, and Wallace flew there to find him. He followed his son's trail toward a mountaintop and noticed a spot where the ground had given way. Peering over the side, he saw Peter's crumpled body 500 feet below. Even now, Wallace speaks haltingly as he tells the story, clasping his hands together as if trying to dispel the pain. "After Peter died, I knew that the only work I'd do for the rest of my life would be serious journalism," says Wallace."I would do something that would have made Peter proud."
Six years later Hewitt approached with the idea for a new show. Wallace had already returned to CBS, and Hewitt wanted to team him with well-respected newsman Harry Reasoner. "Don said he needed someone on the new show people could hate; that was me," says Wallace. "I thought Hewitt was crazy, and I said, 'It will never work.'" Wallace signed up, but his prediction of the show's fate initially proved correct. Marcus Welby M.D. crushed 60 Minutes, and the show hovered near the bottom of the ratings. But a time-slot switch to Sunday nights five years later turned the show with the ticking-stopwatch opening into a juggernaut. It was the No. 1-rated show for five seasons and spent 23 straight years in the Top 10.
Wallace was the show's fast-beating heart, the center of some of its biggest stories and most talked-about moments. In 1991 he brought Barbra Streisand to tears when he said her mother told him the singer didn't have time to be close with anyone. Today Wallace says he crossed the line. "I overdid it. The show was about revealing the truth, but she wasn't a bad guy," he says. Critics said Wallace went too far in 1998, when he showed Jack Kevorkian assisting a suicide. The tape may have helped put Kevorkian behind bars, a punishment Wallace still decries: "The poor son of a bitch is now 77 or 78, and he's still in prison. Sweet Jesus, it's time for compassion."
But the controversy that affected Wallace most personally grew out of a documentary on Vietnam he did for CBS in 1982. Gen. William Westmoreland, a U.S. military commander during the war and a central figure in Wallace's report, sued CBS for libel. During the subsequent trial in 1984, Wallace says he "fell into a black hole, a really deep, dark depression." He tried to kill himself by swallowing sleeping pills. Mary, who began dating Wallace that year and would marry him in 1986, found him unconscious in his bed. She roused him, then took him to the hospital after ripping up the suicide note he had left beside the bed. Wallace began seeing a psychiatrist and started taking antidepressants, which he continues today. (Westmoreland dropped the lawsuit.)
Wallace will keep an office at CBS, and he may occasionally pop up on 60 Minutes. For now, he's content eating dinner every night with Mary: "She's a beautiful person, inside and out." There's just one more thing Wallace would like to do: interview President Bush. He jokes that he wrote the White House, "Before I shuffle off into the sunset, I'd really like to interview the President." Whenever it happens, Wallace will be ready. "Retiring is one thing. Being retired is something else altogether," he says. "I don't hear and see quite as well as I once did. But I'll keep going as long as I can."