published 08/04/2012 at 18:34 BST by Christopher Reed
Veteran CBS television journalist and broadcaster best known for his tough interviews on 60 Minutes
As one of the first two reporters on the US television news magazine show 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace, who has died aged 93, became one of the longest serving and oldest interviewers in the medium. He was also one of the toughest. Even at his first appearance on CBS's 60 Minutes screen, on 24 September 1968, he was middle aged and had already held numerous broadcasting jobs. His most astonishing feat was to remain a top television correspondent into the next century, when he was approaching 90 – and looking like 60.
He had no secret to offer for his physical longevity. Yet, professionally, nobody doubted why Wallace lasted so long: his aggressive continuation of his invention – the hard-hitting interview. His arrival with a camera in tow still caused strong men to tremble even when he was in his 80s.
His interview subjects presented a cultural and political panorama of the second half of the 20th century: George Bush Sr, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, John F Kennedy, Deng Xiaoping, General William Westmoreland, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, Yasser Arafat, the Shah of Iran, King Hussein of Jordan, Muammar Gaddafi, Salvador Dalí, Aldous Huxley, Norman Mailer, Hugh Hefner, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Leonard Bernstein, among many others.
He pioneered techniques such as the ambush interview, confrontations with suspected malefactors, hidden cameras, and the echo response, repeating a particularly telling phrase from the interviewee – although this became tiresome in the mouths of lesser broadcasters. His early interview shows in the 1950s introduced the intrusively tight close-up against a black background with no set, only Wallace's cigarette smoke curling around the faces of sweating victims, making them squirm even more. Before this period, interviews had been soft, bereft of research, and conducted over a table bearing a vase of flowers, in which the microphone was hidden. Wallace researched.
He was shrewd as well as hard, often putting his nastiest questions into others' mouths. Facing Khomeini in 1979, he said: "President Sadat of Egypt, a devoutly religious man, a Muslim, calls you, Imam – forgive me, his word not mine – a lunatic." The interpreter dared not translate, but for the first time Khomeini looked directly at Wallace. His gaze was not pleasant. Wallace later caused Begin to erupt by comparing the Israeli prime minister's 1940s terrorist activities with Arafat's contemporary exploits.
Myron Leon Wallace, born in Brookline, Massachusetts, to middle-class Zionist Jewish parents, attended Brookline high school, and graduated from the University of Michigan in the exciting new medium of broadcasting. After completing second world war service as a US navy communications officer, he became a news reporter for a Chicago radio station. He joined CBS in 1951, having shed his birth name for Mike, but left in 1955 to do various television entertainment jobs before returning in 1963 as a news correspondent.
He had given up the quiz-show circuit for interviews on Night Beat (1956-57) and The Mike Wallace Interview (1957-60) on ABC, promoted as the "Mike Malice Show". From 1959 until 1961, he anchored a public affairs series, Biography, featuring historical figures. His book Mike Wallace Asks, a compilation of interviews, was published in 1958. A memoir, Close Encounters, appeared in 1984, and a further volume, Between You and Me, in 2005.
After his return to CBS, Wallace visited the Vietnam war several times between 1967 and 1971. His interview with the Vietnam commander Westmoreland in a 1982 CBS documentary brought a $120m libel suit from the general over the disputed question of Vietnam casualty figures. Wallace's suggestion that the US army deliberately distorted them was upheld in court, but the network was embarrassed by disclosures of its reporting techniques and in 1985 the case was settled.
Although Wallace never lost a libel case, his worst embarrassment came in his 70s over a cancelled 60 Minutes expose of a tobacco company, Brown and Williamson. The show had evidence from the firm's former research scientist that it had known for decades about health risks from cigarettes, but the network killed the segment over an alleged legal obstacle.
Wallace was heavily criticised for his lack of protest – after decades of boasting about fearless journalism – and he disliked his portrayal in the 1999 Hollywood film that followed, The Insider, which starred Russell Crowe as the whistleblower and Christopher Plummer as Wallace. Yet Wallace recovered and in 1998 had a huge scoop when he interviewed "Dr Death", the euthanasia activist Jack Kevorkian, who provided video of a terminally ill patient taking his fatal injection.
On his official retirement from 60 Minutes in 2006 (he conducted the occasional interview thereafter), Wallace, who suffered from depression for decades, admitted in a farewell interview that he had once attempted suicide. It was 20 years before, "and the years since have been the best ever," he said.
Wallace is survived by his fourth wife Mary and a son, Chris, a Fox News journalist, from his first marriage. Another son, Peter, died in a climbing accident in 1962.
Mike Wallace (Myron Leon Wallace), broadcaster, born 9 May 1918; died 7 April 2012
Morley Safer announces the death of CBS News legend Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, the news magazine show that Wallace helped rise to the top of the ratings to become the number-one program of all time. A tribute to Wallace will air on Sunday, April 15 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.