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If you like Mike Wallace's story, you might also like:
Sam Donaldson,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Nicholas Kristof,
Charles Kuralt,
Dan Rather,
Ted Turner and
Bob Woodward

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Mike Wallace
 
Mike Wallace
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Mike Wallace Interview (page: 3 / 7)

CBS News Correspondent

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  Mike Wallace

In the late 40's, you had a talk show with your wife of the time that got a lot of attention for an unusually frank and open atmosphere.

Mike Wallace: Mike and Buff. Buff Cobb was in Chicago when I got out of the Navy in '46. I think she was playing with Tallulah Bankhead in Private Lives at the time. She was an actress and a bit of a glamorous figure to me at that time. So I succumbed and taught her how to do interviewing, and we did a husband and wife broadcast for a while on NBC in Chicago. The interview show stopped first, and the marriage shortly thereafter. Maybe it was vice versa.

You also did some acting on Broadway, didn't you?

Mike Wallace: I did one play on Broadway, but that came considerably later. By that time I had been to Chicago, out of the Navy, back to Chicago. I came to New York in 1951 and have been there since. In 1955, I guess it was,


I had been covering as a newsman the theatre to a certain degree and I was offered the opportunity by Abe Burrows who was directing this particular play. A famed director, Burrows. He had a play by Harry Curtis called Reclining Figure and I got to play the idealistic young art dealer, the juvenile lead. I was still, I guess, in my late 20s or early 30s. We ran, I guess, about 100 performances, but that was enough to make me understand that I didn't want to be an actor.


Why not?

Mike Wallace Interview Photo
Mike Wallace: Because it is a bore, at least for me. The repetition! If you play a matinee and evening performance on Christmas and New Year's, and this was late in the run, to a house of 100 or 200 people in a theatre that seats 1,000, you begin to understand that it's a bore. I didn't want to spend my life that way.

Many people refer to the theatricality of your work on 60 Minutes, the sense of drama that is associated with your work. There would seem to be some connection between the fact that you actually performed professionally as an actor, and narrating radio shows, and the fact that you bring a terrific sense of drama to the news.

Mike Wallace: Well, I would hope that drama is an interesting way to take charge of the tube. I'm sure that the performance aspects that I learned in various other chores prior to going into news full time was very, very important.


I have been in news full time now, I guess, for going on half a century. But, in order to make people want to watch, and as I say, to take charge of the screen, you must know there are some people who are interesting on camera and some people who are not. I didn't have, for instance, I did not particularly have an anchorman's mien. I wanted to carve out something interesting in the way of what I am going to do on television. So, I decided, well, why don't you study, think, research and do -- not the pabulum of ordinary interviews, "What did you write? What did you sing? When did you do this?" and so forth -- but rather go into the psyche, and into the gut [level] of the interviewee. And the interviewee likes to feel comfortable, and challenged sometimes -- if he or she is an interesting person -- by the research that has been done ahead of time by the interviewer. Strangely, that had never been done. Well, I say "never been done," I'm sure it had been done, but for television we were the first to do it, back in 1956 for a program called Night Beat, on a local station in New York at 11:00 at night when people's thresholds were down to the kinds of questions that we were asking. New York likes to discover something new, and this was new. People wanted to come on and wrestle with me, and wanted to be surprised, and wanted to be challenged with difficult, sometimes abrasive, sometimes skeptical questions.

[ Key to Success ] Vision


Who were some of the guests that you remember?


Mike Wallace: You name it. Everybody. A lot of people in New York were fascinated by the fact that somebody was finally asking questions of some substance and unexpected questions. One back then would never talk on air to a homosexual. I mean it just would be unheard of. But we did, those who were willing to come out of the closet and talk about it - or somebody who was addicted to drugs. I mean it is difficult to believe now, but a half century ago and that was virtually that -- 45 years ago, all television interview programs were pabulum, easy questions and easy answers and so forth. And, suddenly we decided -- it wasn't my idea, it was a colleague of mine by the name of Ted Yates with whom I worked for a long time. He said, "Let's really go after some of these people in an interesting way. Make them think, make them react." And, they did.

[ Key to Success ] Courage


You made a decision a few years after that to concentrate on news rather than entertainment. You have linked that decision to a very painful chapter in your life, the tragedy of your son's death. Was that a period of soul searching?


Mike Wallace: It was 1962. What happened was that my son, Peter, then 19, had taken the summer of his junior year at Yale, had taken the summer off and gone to Grenoble in France, to summer school, and then he was going to meet some of his pals at a youth hostel in Greece and just hang out with his pals for a while. We didn't hear and didn't hear and didn't hear, which was unusual. Not that he wrote daily, but he would write every week, and suddenly -- nothing. So, finally I decided I'm going to go find out what has happened. I found out he had fallen off a cliff and nobody knew. The people at the youth hostel knew because we went there to find out what had happened, and there was his luggage and so forth. It turned out it was a monastery in which a couple of nuns were living. He was obviously a fine, fine young man. He wanted to be a writer, wanted to be a reporter. So, we went up the mountain we had been told that he went up to find those nuns. I got up about, I don't know, 500 or 600 feet on a donkey with the American consul from Athens who had been loaned to us. I looked down from where he obviously had been sitting, and there he was. And so, I had found I was still doing a variety of chores at that time, news, a quiz broadcast, I was doing Biography at that time. I was doing a bunch of different things. I used to say, when asked, that the reason that I do all of these things is so that I can make money to support the kids that I had, two of my own and two stepchildren at the time. So, I said, let's make a virtue of this tragic necessity and give up everything that I had been doing to see how it would be until I wanted to go to work, basically.



I wanted to go to work for CBS News, but I was perfectly content to go to work for whatever. It became apparent that ABC News wasn't going to hire me. I had talked to the President of NBC News. "No." I was asked if I wanted to go to KTLA out in Los Angeles, and I went out there to talk to them. Finally, I said, "You know, let's see if maybe CBS will not hire me on some kind of a basis, but exclusively for news." I had been at CBS. Dick Salant was the President of CBS News at the time. He said, "Well, I'll tell you what, the salary will be low." And, the salary that he offered was about a third or a quarter of what I had been making. Then he didn't say it, but, "You will be on a kind of probation until we discover what it is that..." and so I grabbed it in March of 1963.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance


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This page last revised on Mar 24, 2008 13:32 EST
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