Good Night, Harry

updated 08/19/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/19/1991 01:00AM

IT WAS THE TWINKLE IN HIS EYE AND THE sly, slightly crooked smile that distinguished Harry Reasoner and so endeared him to the American viewing public. In his 35 years as a news correspondent, co-anchor on the ABC Evening News and especially in his two stints (1968-70, 1978-91) on CBS's celebrated 60 Minutes, Reasoner traded amiably on a sort of cracker-barrel crankiness that told viewers he was about to let them in on a naughty little secret about important people in high places.

Reasoner's style was also shaped by a sharp intelligence and a love for the snap and crackle of the English language. "Harry set the tone for 60 Minutes," says his longtime friend Don Hewitt, the show's executive producer. "Before 60 Minutes, the accepted wisdom in television was that we put words to pictures. Harry Reasoner changed that. You started with his words, then found the pictures to enrich them."

Ironically, as 60 Minutes evolved into America's favorite muckraking forum, Reasoner often seemed bemusedly out of sync with the show's aggressive style and glitzy tone, opting instead for such offbeat segments as 1981's "The Best Movie Ever Made?" a wryly sentimental look back at the 1942 film Casablanca. Indeed, he was wont to throw an occasional handful of sand on the inflammable motif favored by 60 Minutes and network news specials. In a 1968 essay on boxing and music as escapes from the ghetto, Reasoner dryly observed, "The title of this segment is 'Body and Soul'—and the bright young man who thought that up got the rest of the day off."

Now 60 Minutes must survive without Reasoner's affable skepticism. After two operations for lung cancer in 1987 and 1989, and a third operation last June to remove a blood clot on his brain, followed by a debilitating bout with pneumonia, Reasoner died in a hospital near his Westport, Conn., home on Aug. 6 at age 68. Said 60 Minutes comrade Mike Wallace: "The damned fool smoked and smoked after his operations. We'd bat him around the ears about it, but he never gave it up." Wallace also remembered brighter days at his home on Martha's Vineyard when Reasoner visited: "We would get cans of cold martinis and put them on ice and bring them down to the beach."

Reasoner plainly loved the world he lived and worked in. He once wrote of his first day as a CBS news correspondent: "Excluding personal matters like wedding days and births of children, it was and has continued to be the biggest day of my life." The son of Iowa educators, Reasoner studied journalism at Stanford and the University of Minnesota, then began his career on the Minneapolis Times in 1942. He joined CBS in 1956 and helped launch 60 Minutes in 1968, then defected to ABC in 1970. He enjoyed a publicly frosty relationship with Barbara Walters because, as he wrote in his 1981 memoir, Before the Colors Fade, he thought that Walters's hiring as the first woman co-anchor would be perceived as "a stunt." Still, after he left ABC in 1978 to return to 60 Minutes, he appeared on Walters's 20/20. She now fondly recalls Reasoner's "very dry wit. He was Everyman with a sense of humor and sophistication."

Reasoner married attorney Kathleen Ann Carroll (they were divorced, after 35 years, in 1981) and fathered seven children. By the time he married insurance executive Lois Weber in 1988, his health was already deteriorating. Last May he resigned as a regular on 60 Minutes.

Reasoner's value to the show—and his place in the American living room—was summed up by Don Hewitt. "I've known a lot of broadcasters from the Midwest," he said, "but Harry was one of the few who brought the Midwest with him. He never left Iowa, and that was lovable."

MARK GOODMAN
SUE CARSWELL in New York City

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