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Mike, Me and a Final Coincindence

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We have read much about Mike's early career and his years at CBS, but in between he had a pretty tough time. In 1961, Mike was working for Channel 13, WNTA, the commercial station that was about to be sold to Educational Television for the Metropolitan Area and converted into a PBS outlet. He had two programs on the air, a 6-6:30pm half hour news show (the first half hour news show to be produced in New York City), and The Mike Wallace Interview, a primetime copy of Night Beat, the show that had made him famous on the old Dumont network.

The news show and the interview were about to die, and Mike's staff was moving on. I knew one of the writers who'd found a new job at CBS and he asked me to fill in for him until Mike's show ended. At the time, I was working for United Press/Movietone News, and as anybody who has every worked for United Press knows, picking up an outside gig was much appreciated. So, I joined the Wallace team for a couple of weeks and loved it. Wallace was a pro, the staff knew their jobs, the shows went well, and I was making more money than I ever made at UPI.

After a week, Mike asked me to do pre-interviews for his primetime show, The Mike Wallace Interview. I met and had lunch with a half dozen or so celebs, ranging from Jacques Soustelle (a French cabinet minister) to Bobby Darin, the pop singer whose top hit was Splish Splash. In my pre-interview, Darin bragged on the number of different pairs of shoes left under his bed most nights. I put that into my pre-interview script, but Mike took it out. He said if Darin volunteered it, it would go on the air, but he wouldn't ask the question himself. I think that Mike used the same method on Sixty Minutes, if the subject volunteered personal information, he'd use it--but if it bordered on the salacious, he wouldn't bring it up.

My favorite interview was with Gore Vidal. Vidal gossiped about everybody, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. He informed me that Mrs. Roosevelt was the most astonishing combination of human kindness and animal cunning he had ever encountered. As for Eisenhower, for whom he had little liking, he said that his father, who had gone to West Point with Ike, told him that Eisenhower was an average soldier, but the best politician ever to graduate from the military academy. I don't think he mentioned those insights on Mike's interview that night.

In the newsroom, Mike was constantly on the phone talking to his agent (last name, as I remember, Johnson), looking to land a job at CBS, which he always thought the best of all networks. But Johnson was telling him he had problems. Mike had done quiz shows and commercials, even for cigarettes, and the news purists at CBS spurned him. Mike began freelancing.

I think I gave him his next job, I was just finishing an industrial documentary for Canadian Javelin company at UPI/Movietone. I asked Mike to narrate it, he did a great job, and Movietone's managing editor, Burt Reinhardt, got Mike to narrate a few newsreels. Meanwhile, David Wolper chose Mike to narrate one of the first important independent documentaries, The Race for Space. It was seen on independent and network stations all over America, and was nominated for an Academy Award.

Mike's efforts to get a job at CBS network weren't going anywhere, but then he got an offer from KNXT, the CBS owned and operated station in Los Angeles. Sam Zelman, KNXT's news director, wanted Mike to anchor The Big News, the first one hour newscast in America. Sam, who was later a Vice President at CNN (and the best judge of television talent I ever worked with), invited Mike out to the west coast. They went house hunting, Mike found a house he liked, and was about to accept the offer, but he gave the network one more chance. Johnson told the CBS purists that Mike was going to sign with KNXT unless they hired him immediately. CBS surrendered--finally hired Mike, and chose him to anchor The CBS Morning News. But the show didn't work and Mike returned to reporting. He covered breaking news, he covered political conventions and pleased his bosses.

Then, in the mid-sixties, Don Hewitt, who had fallen out of favor with the same news purists that had rejected Wallace, was taken off the nightly news and offered the opportunity to create and produce a bi-weekly hour primetime program. Hewitt, recognizing the talents of both Wallace and Harry Reasoner, another great reporter and part time anchorman, recruited them to work on his show, which became Sixty Minutes. In 1972, the now weekly show was moved to Sunday nights. Hewitt, Wallace and Reasoner emerged as television immortals.

Mike and I talked occasionally for the next thirty years. We asked favors of each other, and once even tried to work together. It never happened, and I regret it.

About Mike, I have only one more tale to tell, and it happened by pure coincidence. Mike Wallace was always a ladies man. Liz Smith wrote, in her obit on Huff Post that "Mike loved and needed women...he was...a lover, a teaser, a delighter in women..." That was never a secret. Then Mike got older and needed help--physical therapists. A friend of mine who was recovering from a heart attack used the same therapist. One day, she arrived almost in tears. We asked her what happened. She said that Mike's wife had just fired her. She told us that Mike had always called her "the girl with the gorgeous ass". When she had arrived at his apartment earlier that day, and Mike complimented her on her rear end. Mrs. Wallace had had enough. She ordered the therapist out of the room, gave her her day's pay, and told her not to come back.

Shortly afterwards, Mike went into a nursing home.