Mike Wallace, the legendary 60 Minutes correspondent who died Saturday at the age of 93, asked me not to repeat this story, but I guess it’s okay to tell it now.
He was a young reporter sent to interview the actress Jane Russell, best known for her voluptuous bosom. She was doing a night club act in New York at the time. Wallace did the interview with her, he related late one afternoon sitting around his office at 60 Minutes, and afterwards they decided to go to a club in Harlem.
They got into a cab together, and Wallace remembered sitting in the back with the actress and putting his arm around her.The next thing, they were necking. And as they kissed, his hand found its way to one of those famous breasts.
“So there I was, a kid, driving along with my hand on Jane Russell’s breast,” he said, laughing and shaking his head at what obviously remained, years later, an entirely pleasant memory.
When Mike Wallace told me that story in the fall of 1979, 60 Minutes after eleven years of being bounced around the CBS network, had just become the number one-rated show on television.
Led by producer Don Hewitt, the brains and the driving force behind the show, and a team of co-hosts that in addition to Wallace included Morley Safer, Harry Reasoner, and Dan Rather, 60 Minutes had slowly risen in the ratings until finally it hit the number one spot the week I hung around the offices on West 57th Street.
In fact, later that afternoon, there was a brief celebration of the show’s astonishing success in the conference room, everyone grumbling that it consisted of no more than deli sandwiches and soda.
Although 60 Minutes was classified as a news program, Hewitt had cannily packaged it much like a dramatic series–except rather than a weekly show about Charlie’s angels or a team of cops, or a family of doctors, 60 Minutes featured the weekly exploits of four buddies named Mike, Morley, Harry, and Dan.
Each of their segments was structured much like a mini drama, complete with a beginning, middle, and dramatic end. Everyone connected with the show contributed something, but the real star, the character everyone tuned in to see each week, was Mike Wallace.
“The others get involved with the stories, of course,” one of the 60 Minutes producers told me. “But no one gets involved the way Mike Wallace does.”
Wallace was tough, confrontational, not afraid to ask the sort of difficult questions that usually didn’t get asked on network television.When I talked to him, for example, Wallace had just done an interview with the reclusive talk show host, Johnny Carson.
If there was one person better known on network television in 1979 than Wallace, it was Carson. However, no one had been able to get to him for a sit-down on camera interview.
Nobody, that is, except Mike Wallace.
Wallace was euphoric about the story. “John earns five million dollars a year, but nobody has ever known that,” he said, his black eyes full of impish delight. “I think it bugged him. He was like a kid about it; he knew he shouldn’t tell me, but he is so proud of what he earns that he has just got to tell someone.”
Whether it was confronting Johnny Carson about his salary or ambushing the legions of con men and shakedown artists he gleefully encountered over the years, Wallace exuded the comfortable authority of a man who had been around many blocks: by the time he came to 60 Minutes in 1968, the former Myron Wallace had done everything from talk programs, quiz shows, and cigarette commercials, to acting on radio and stage and anchoring network newscasts.
“When 60 Minutes started, Harry Reasoner was supposed to be the sole host,” Wallace recalled. “They did a pilot and decided what they needed was more tension, so they brought me in so that Harry could play the white hat, and I, obviously, was to play the black hat.”
Off camera, relaxing in his windowless, executive-style office, Wallace was surprisingly easy-going and welcoming. He was known around CBS as a ruthless competitor (at that point Safer and Wallace were rumored not to be talking to one another).
But of the four co-hosts, not to mention the elusive Hewitt himself, Wallace turned out to be the least guarded and most willing to sit around for a couple of hours and just chew the fat. Not only was Mike Wallace the most popular and controversial figure on television at the time, but that late afternoon he turned out to be a heck of a nice guy.
Wallace was sixty-one years old when I interviewed him. Nearly three decades later, at the age of eighty-eight after supposedly retiring, he was still doing pieces for the show he helped make the most successful and original current affairs series on network television.
Although 60 Minutes remains popular, it does not come close to the forty million viewers it was weekly attracting in 1979. It is still surprisingly good current affairs television, however, despite the departure of Hewitt (who died in 2009) and all sorts of imitations.
But it is no longer the weekly adventures of Mike, Morley, Harry,and Dan.There is now a confusing plethora of co-hosts, including the Canadian-born, eighty-year-old Safer, the last man standing from those earlier days. It is not nearly as hard-hitting as it used to be, and certainly no one comes close to Wallace’s popularity or his thirst for the jugular.
When I heard of Wallace’s death early on a bright Easter Sunday afternoon, I sat and thought about that long-ago encounter with him, about the way he so casually dominated life at 60 Minutes back then.
I thought about the big smile that creased those leathery features when he talked about Jane Russell, and the young reporter who fondled her breast in the back seat of a taxi headed for Harlem.
I also thought about the last words Don Hewitt said to me as I departed the 60 Minutes offices. “This show will be here long after we’re all dead,” he said.
He was certainly right about that.