Maury Z. Levy

Mike Wallace: The Playboy Electronics Guide Interview

In Playboy magazine and the Playboy Guides (1979-1989) on September 15, 2009 at 3:36 pm

MikeWallace

[Author’s note: I had the chickenpox the day I did this interview. I was running 103 degree fever and looked like a spotted owl. But, the show goes on.]

During the day, he lives in a glass house. It is a surprisingly small space in a row of cookie-cutter offices. Harry Reasoner is a couple of doors down, Andy Rooney just up the hall from him. He closes the curtain when a visitor comes in, so people walking by can’t see what he’s up to. It’s not that he’s so secretive. Just private.

The office is deep on the West Side of Manhattan. From his window, you can clearly see the swamps of Jersey. And Myron Wallace, who has been known these many years as Mike Wallace, seems comfortable in the small surroundings. He is a modest man. Five of his golden Emmys sit on the lowest row of shelves, almost tucked away in a corner. To make room for the two more he won earlier this year, he’ll have to move some of the many books that crowd the shelves. It is an eclectic collection. “The Joys of Yiddish” sits next to a volume called “My Sex Life.” On the desk, right next to the Royal manual typewriter, is a copy of “Arabs in the Jewish State.” For Mike Wallace, his tweed jacket looking so natural, his sweater vest looking so comfortable, that should be a fast read. The man is a quick study.

He’s done so many things in his profes­sional life, he’s had to be. Before television, he was the announcer of radio’s “Sky King.” In the early Fifties, he did a nightclub broadcast from Chicago’s Chez Paree. He’s even ap­peared in a Broadway play. And that’s not counting the cigarette commercials and the game shows.

His high school yearbook from Brookline, Massachusetts, cited him for debating, prize-speaking, being sports editor of the school paper and captain of the tennis team. He said back then he wanted to be an English teacher, maybe a lawyer.

The son of Russian immigrants, he worked in a grocery store to earn money for college. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1939 and quickly landed a $20-a-week job at a radio station in Grand Rapids, where he did some news, some entertainment, and swept up the studios when he was done.

It was in Grand Rapids that he decided he wanted to make his living in electronic journalism. A couple of stations later, he signed on with CBS to do some radio and, finally, some TV.

His nightly interview show, “Night Beat,” soon became all the rage in those pioneering days of television. Wallace quickly gained a reputation as a relentless interviewer, a man who wouldn’t let his subjects off the hook, no matter how important they were. His style, sometimes bordering on pushy penetration, was often criticized by colleagues. But Wallace always asked the right questions—and questioned the right answers.

So it made perfect sense that 13 years ago, when CBS started “60 Minutes,” Wallace became one of the principal reporters. Over the years, he would develop into perhaps the most feared and respected interviewer around. But he remained a very private man, one who would never sit still long enough to be an interviewee.

PLAYBOY GUIDES editor Maury Z. Levy talked Wallace into sitting on the other side of the microphone for once. Levy, a veteran of some probing PLAYBOY interviews with the likes of Pete Rose and Terry Bradshaw, found Wallace to be a somewhat nervous subject—careful of what he said and how he said it. Here’s how their conversation went:

PLAYBOY: Before we talk about your visible role on 60 Minutes, let’s talk about some­thing most people don’t know. In 1968, right around the time 60 Minutes was starting, you thought seriously about the possibility of leaving CBS, of leaving broadcasting. You were offered a job…

WALLACE: In Washington as the press secre­tary to Mr. Nixon. I thought very seriously about it, because I have never lived in Washington and I figured that it would be a fascinating way to learn the Washington scene. I talked to a good many friends and finally decided against it. As I look back on it now, I don’t suppose I would have changed the history of anything. But it could have changed my history some.

PLAYBOY: Did you believe in Nixon at the time? !Flier(‘ had to be something more than just living, in Washington.

WALLACE: it wasn’t a question of believing in Nixon. I felt the conventional wisdom about Richard Nixon-I had never covered him very closely before-was out of date. He impressed me as an infinitely more savvy and more interesting man than I had been led to believe. And he was, during that .67-‘611 campaign. a remarkable cam­paigner. accessible up to the time of the convention. So knowledgeable. thoughtful, a trifle tortured in his dealings with indi­viduals on a one-to-one basis-certainly individuals in the press. And I found him interesting. But my desire to go to work for him didn’t mean either Republican or Democrat, because I am neither. I’ve voted both sides of the aisle and still do. I looked on it not just as working for a man for whom I had respect, but as an opportunity to work in the White House and learn a great deal.

PLAYBOY: But thank God you staved.

WALLACE: Yes.

PLAYBOY: Do you believe in God?

WALLACE: It shouldn’t be a difficult question to answer. I still pray, so I guess I do believe, but not in any very positive way. I’m a backsliding Jew. But each night I say a Hebrew prayer when I go to sleep.

PLAYBOY: Which prayer?

WALLACE: Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonoi Elohenu, Adonoi echod “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” I have said this for I don’t know how many years. As long as I can remember. I cannot go to sleep until I have said that prayer. So when you say, do you believe in God? I suppose I do. I believe in a spirit. I believe in-I would like to believe that I believe in the Golden Rule, which is do unto others. I would like to believe in honesty. And caring.

PLAYBOY: You’d ask that question to a number of people. Aldous Huxley might have been one. And it was Huxley who…

WALLACE: You have really gone back.

PLAYBOY: Aldous Huxley’s grand­father termed himself an agnostic. He pressed the thought that religion is based primarily on fear. That people turn to religion when they have nothing else–no other feasible explanation for anything that happens.

WALLACE: I can’t do that. I have thought about this a good deal. There was a time when I took a certain perverse pride, I guess, in proclaiming myself an agnostic. I cannot in any positive sense now say I am an agnostic, that I do not know. On the contrary–I have a hunch there is a spirit.. At least I have–I have been persuaded or life has somehow led me to believe that 26 there is a spirit. I guess my religion reflects itself in an attempt to be ethical, in an attempt to be moral. an attempt to be caring, an attempt to he .giving. But I do that rather privately without any regular public manifestation.

PLAYBOY: Speaking of public manifesta­tions, lets talk about TV ratings. The ratings arc an enigma to many. There is 60 Minutes consistently right up there with Dallas and The Dukes of Hazzard. What does that say about America’s TV tastes?

WALLACE: What it seems to indicate is that the public’s appetite for nonfiction televi­sion is immense, and growing. If you were to add up the tens of millions-I suppose hundreds of millions-of individual viewers who are watching nonfiction tele­vision now-not just news, but magazine broadcasts, network and local, and then docu-drama and biographical material-I think it would probably come to a stagger­ing figure. When you take a look at the sales of hooks that are nonfiction, the phenomenon is the same. And I have a hunch that cable television in the years to come is going to find a great audience for specialized nonfiction. Sailing, painting, ballet. It’s not going to he just gore, sex and high drama that will attract big audiences.

PLAYBOY: How much television do you watch? And what do you watch?

WALLACE: I watch in the morning while I’m doing my exercises. I watch either Good Morning America or the Today show, and then there is Phil Donahue or Mike Douglas or Good Morning New York. So I watch one of those and then I leave the house around 9:30. I’ll watch something for an hour or so. But it’s almost like radio, because you are moving around and getting dressed. At night, watch one of the newscasts. Or all of them. And then I watch sports on the weekends and an occasional Cavett show. a Moyers conversation. I would imagine that, all told, my television viewing per week probably runs-not necessarily with total attention-to a dozen hours.

PLAYBOY: Abu can get through a week without watching a Love Boat?

WALLACE: I really have no particular inter­est in situation comedy and I am not particularly interested in Dallas. I must say I rather like Archie Bunker and will watch that show occasionally. Because it is dif­ferent really. I mean, there is satire, real or implied, in it.

PLAYBOY: If you had to explain 60 Minutes to the three people out there who might still be watching Walt Disney and have never seen you, how, simply, would you explain the show?

WALLACE: It is not a news broadcast in the traditional sense at all, because fre­quently we do not cover any story that’s at the top of the news that week. And in putting together the mix each week of features, investigations and profiles, we try to hit everybody. If you’re not interested in whats going on (hiring a 12-minute seg­ment. well, wait until after the commer­cial, because something else is going to come along that probably will interest you. It’s a magazine much like Look or Life in their primes.

PLAYBOY: Doesn’t the show walk a thin line between journalism and theater?

WALLACE: Well, look at it as print journal­ism. In writing a piece, you will search for the way to make it interesting. How do I quickly get the attention of my reader? He may be thumbing through the magazine, wanting to go on to the next piece, unless I can say something in an interesting way that will arrest his attention and get him to stay. I don’t regard that as drama; I regard that as style. Some of television’s most interesting moments- and I’m afraid Were losing them more and more-occur on live television, unrehearsed television. And candidly, we do try from time to time to make it look as though something is hap­pening in “real time,” so to speak. In other words, we will walk into an office and ask to see the boss. If the boss comes out and says, “Well, I’m not sure I want to talk to you, but then decides he is going to talk to Von, arid we sit down with him and we can put in front of him a piece of information he didn’t know was coming, then we have some drama. The situation would be the same if you confronted me like that. Ex­cept that when you see that kind of con­frontation on film, it does take on a special kind of drama, I suppose. It is not con­trived; it is not staged. It is honest. And I do believe it is one of the things that has persuaded people to look in on us with a certain regularity.

PLAYBOY: There is certainly a sense of power that has come out of being able to do certain things that have such a great effect on people, either the viewers or the subjects of the stories. What sense of power do you feel the show and you personally have?

WALLACE: I don’t feel any particular power now. Power is a glamorous and important-sounding word. And power really to do what? Power simply to focus attention-the attention of the public, the attention of certain public officials, because we are watched in Washington. The power, I sup­pose, to have our peers, reporters, look at stories we do and perhaps follow up on them. And it is power I would hope is bred of careful research and the fact that, over a period of years, we have developed a very large audience.

PLAYBOY: But certainly there is more power in most 60 Minutes stories than there is in most print stories, because of the nature of the medium.

WALLACE: Well, there’s no doubt that there is more drama to seeing it happen on TV.

PLAYBOY: Sure. And then there you are—the cameras are rolling, you often have an unsuspecting person on the other side, and that person is trapped.

WALLACE: Well, you say that person is trapped. Well, maybe. Maybe that person wasn’t feeling good. Or maybe the person just demands his privacy. But I will tell you this candidly -time and again we have done that sort of thing and simply have not broadcast it because it was quite apparent that it had nothing to do with any sense of the real story.

PLAYBOY: Can you focus on a point in your background that gave you the ability to ask the incisive question?

WALLACE: Not really. It would be “neat” if that were so, but I’m not really sure. Now that I think of it, though, I guess there was an early turning point in my professional life. In the Navy, on a submarine tender in Subic Bay in the Philippine Islands toward the end of the war, I began to figure, “What am I going to do?” I was determined to find my niche in broadcasting. I surveyed the possibilities and realized that probably my niche was going to be in the area of nonfiction and features. I wasn’t that interested just to be—at that moment, any­way—a reporter. It took me until 1962 to decide that solid electronic journalism was where I was going to make my living.

But then I did all kinds of things in radio and television—for quite some time, too. Actually, now that I think about it, I suppose it is two halves to a life. The first half was to find out what it was I could do, to find out what I wanted to do and what I wanted to discard. And having found it about 20 years ago, I have done that exclusively.

PLAYBOY: Do you look back now and regret any of the things you did then.

WALLACE: None. Not one. No. Because every bit of it helped to fill my vessel. Whatever you do, it does help to fill—it gives you experience, it gives you understanding. I learned about advertising a little through dealing with people who produce com­mercials; I learned a little about the the­ater from dealing with people who produce and write plays. I did news along the way and learned something about that as well. I did ad-lib broadcasts. I did remote broadcasts. I even did a little play-by-play sports. All of these things have been in­valuable in learning how to understand, how to convey information, how to report, how to make that information interesting.

PLAYBOY: There was a curious line that came up in a Tom Snyder interview in PLAYBOY a while back, when basically he was being asked about the difference be­tween news and entertainment. And he was getting a little annoyed. He used your name. “Why don’t people ask Mike Wal­lace why he did the quiz shows, why he did the cigarette commercials?” he said. Is there anything there to be ashamed of?

WALLACE: Certainly nothing I can think of. The cigarette commercials helped put my kids through college. I was able to defer my fees from them long enough to put every one of my youngsters through. And the quiz shows—at the time I did them I had not made the determination for myself that I was going to do news exclusively. That was—let’s see—that was back in the Fifties. So that is now 26 years ago. I am 63 now. Yeah, I was 37 years old. And I had not come to the firm understanding of what I wanted to do with my professional life. I took a year off to find a job. I gave up considerable income in order to do the job I’m doing now. I learned. I learned what I wanted to try to do and, over a period of time, happily it has worked out. I could have gone the other was,

PLAYBOY: The income issue is interesting. There is a quote from you in a 1957 Saturday Evening Post. You said, talking about the decision, “I wanted to make dough and interviewing was the Way to make it. News doesn’t pay well.”

WALLACE: That is correct.

PLAYBOY: Yet, on the first major network interviewing job you got, you did take a definite cut in salary?

WALLACE: Yes. Well, I took a much more serious cut to come to work here at CBS. I mean, I took a cut of about 75 percent in order to come back to work at CBS in 1963.

PLAYBOY: So you weren’t in it for the money?

WALLACE: Certainly not.

PLAYBOY: But was there really any money interviewing?

WALLACE: I enjoyed interviewing so much actually. I enjoyed the whole process: the preparations, the research, the opportuni­ty to plumb, to talk to somebody, to try to reach beneath the surface, to try to get somebody to talk candidly in spite of lights and cameras and paraphernalia. It was a challenge, and I found myself peculiarly fitted to confront it. I just enjoyed it, and I suppose I didn’t get a lot more than union scale to begin with. Your salary goes up depending upon what the market feels you’re worth. If the market eventually determines you’re worth more because more people are looking in and are curious to see what you’re reporting, so be it. That’s what t he free-enterprise system is all about, I guess.

PLAYBOY: At the time you decided to focus on news, you had trouble getting a job.

WALLACE: Right.

PLAYBOY: Was that because of your varied background?

WALLACE: Yes, of course. Because I had done some of those things—commercials, quiz broadcasts. And because of the controversy that surrounded some of the things I had done on the old , Night Beat and The Mike Wallace Interview. I think people were prob­ably a little bit skeptical, maybe leers.

PLAYBOY: Is there one point where you felt you had finally made believers out of your critics, where you’d convinced them you had the credentials to be here?

WALLACE: I think so. I think it was the San Francisco convention in 1964. I was out there to do The CBS Morning News, getting up at three o’clock in the morning. The convention coverage was not going exceed­ingly well, and they wondered if I wanted to go down on the floor to report, No one had paid particular attention to the fact that I had covered political conventions before. So they put me on the floor and I knew my way around. People were saying well, hey, there is more here than meets the eye, and in a sense they let me join the team after that. There was no more skepticism.

PLAYBOY: Let’s talk about the public for a minute. And about the show. The average person watching 60 Minutes sees you on there, but perhaps doesn’t get real insight into what makes the show tick. How many people are involved? How does an idea go from creation to air?

WALLACE: I think there are about 60 people involved in the production of each indi­vidual broadcast—producers, researchers, directors, editors. And then, of course, you have your camera crews, and with each broadcast there are frequently six or eight crews who will work on those three seg­ments during the various times they are being filmed. My total contribution to it will be six, eight, ten days. A producer will live the piece. The correspondent per­forms; otherwise he couldn’t turn out one a week.

PLAYBOY: You have an unrelenting style. Is there anyone you’ve interviewed on cam­era whom you felt you pushed too hard?

WALLACE: Conceivably one person. There may be others, but an example is the head of the Hooker Chemical Company. And what happened was this. I was stunned that he was willing to go on and talk, and because he was such a fine man and such an open spirit it was unnecessary for me to badger him. In effect, this man who was the head of Hooker Chemical was saying, Look, what happened was wrong.” He wouldn’t and couldn’t confess error on the part of the Hooker Chemical Company, but in a sense he seas saying, “We won’t do it anymore; we are going to be infinitely more responsible now.” And I thought that in my excessively hectoring questioning I probably created more sympathy for him than the Hooker Chemical Company de-served. You run that risk when you do the kind of occasionally abrasive questioning that I do. It doesn’t happen often. It might have happened more often back in the days when we were live, when we didn’t have the opportunity to edit. But now we do have that opportunity, and I’m not the only one who’s there looking; the producer and the film editor and my colleagues and superiors all the way up to the division vice-president are also.

PLAYBOY: Has this job, in the situations you’ve seen and the people you’ve talked with, made you skeptical?

WALLACE: Yes.

PLAYBOY: And you were not to start with?

WALLACE: I think I was fresher-eyed to begin with. Partially, I suppose, it’s the kind of story I like to do. I don’t do a lot of upbeat stories. And if you spend much of your professional time working on inves­tigations, inquiries, exposes, call them what you will, you learn a lot about human nature. I suppose it is one of the hazards of the trade that along the way you become a kind of professional skeptic—I would hope not a cynic, but certainly a skeptic.

PLAYBOY: As people watch you interview­ing world figures, they never really see your personal, gut reaction to them. Let’s forget the dispassionate journalist for a moment. Tell us what Mike Wallace the man really thinks about some of these people. Let’s start with the shah.

WALLACE: I first met him when we did a profile of the Empress Farah. She kept interview­ing waiting for lunch. He was a small Nixon in his view of the American political scene, the permissiveness granted the American young, and the general lack of self-dis­cipline he sensed in the West. I found him fascinating. There’s an interesting point about the shah: He never asked for a question ahead of time. No matter how rough or direct or even how personal the question, he always answered it; he never flickered, never suggested later that there was anything improper about the line of questioning, whether I was talking about corruption or torture. But I am afraid that I wore out my welcome. I interviewed him, I guess, three times. And by the time my third interview came around, he was hav­ing, a certain amount of trouble with the opposition.

PLAYBOY: The ayatollah.

WALLACE: I was struck by his clear eye, firm hand and apparent good health for a man his age. After all, he had been through such stress for a long time and I had heard he was ill. He did not look ill to me. At the time I met him, I was suffering from jet lag and indigestion and he seemed to be in much better shape than I was. He was fascinating. I spent about an hour with him and I don’t think he looked me in the eye for more than two or three minutes out of that entire hour.

PLAYBOY: Sadat and Begin.

WALLACE: Begin doesn’t like a prickly question, but Sadat will take any question with good humor. And to some degree that is the difference in the public’s perception of them. One is prickly and one is benign, each a strong leader. One is, in my estima­tion, more effective than the other, because he believes that more can be gained from honey than vinegar.

PLAYBOY: Ronald Reagan.

WALLACE: He is a pleasant man. I have known him and Mrs. Reagan for many, many years, because Mrs. Reagan’s mother was a friend of mine in Chicago. I knew Mrs. Reagan when she was much, much younger and I have seen them off and on over the years. He is a good companion. And there is no hubris in him. He’ll take any question, just like Sadat. He has a view of life I may or may not agree with, but I wish him well.

PLAYBOY: We’re curious about your opinion of other people in your business, other interviewers. Barbara Walters?

WALLACE: A superb professional. Thought­ful, well prepared, intuitive.

PLAYBOY: Tom Snyder.

WALLACE: I really don’t see him that often. I don’t stay up late, and so I haven’t seen him enough to make a proper comment.

PLAYBOY: Geraldo Rivera.

WALLACE: Geraldo has a tendency to show­boat, which I think might diminish his effectiveness. But that’s his style, and I’m sure he is perfectly aware of what he is doing; one has to respect him for doing what he believes is right for him.

PLAYBOY: Phil Donahue.

WALLACE: Oh, I think Phil is simply first rate. He, like Walters, has that peculiar quality of being able to get information and feeling and response based on that intuitive understanding of the person to whom he’s speaking.

PLAYBOY: This might be stretching things a bit, but how about Rona Barrett?

WALLACE: You know something? Rona Bar­rett to me is perfectly legitimate. Rona Barrett is a good reporter, reporting on an important beat. And when I say impor­tant, I don’t mean important in the global sense. But it is a beat that I’m interested in, that tens of millions of Americans find fascinating, and she digs hard, comes up with information that other reporters on that beat do not come up with. So I respect Rona Barrett for what she does. It is very easy to look down your nose at a woman who is a gossip columnist. She is not a gossip columnist; she is a reporter on the Hol­lywood scene. She happens to be first-class for a television reporter of the entertain­ment scene. I think that I have nothing but respect for Rona Barrett.

PLAYBOY: Do you have any heroes?

WALLACE: Martin Luther King was one of my heroes. He had courage and determi­nation, commitment. I can’t think of anybody else at this moment to whom I could point and say. “That’s my hero.”

PLAYBOY: Who haven’t you interviewed whom you’d still like to do?

WALLACE: I would love to do it and I am sure that I will never have the opportunity: I would love to talk to Pat Nixon—not about Watergate, but about life.

PLAYBOY: When you look into what is happening with the TV. and electronics industries now, when everybody either has or certainly will have a videocassette recorder in his home, what do you see as the electronic future?

WALLACE: You know something? I don’t know I have never used a videocassette recorder in my home to this day. I own one, but I have never hooked it up.

PLAYBOY: Why?

WALLACE: I don’t know why. I have no particular desire to. I have a new one now and I suppose I’m going to take it out of the closet and hook it up and maybe it will hook me. But up till now, no. I shop around on cable and I haven’t found anything that’s very interesting yet. I am interested in the cable news network, principally because that’s my racket and I like to watch what the others are doing. I don’t know what’s going to happen. There was a time when I thought to myself, “Maybe after I shuffle off the CBS eye and I am on my own, maybe I will do an interview or two interviews a year on cable—on paid cable.” For instance, I wish I could have gotten Charles I.indbergh, who never did a tele­vision interview as far as I know, to sit down for an hour or an hour and a half with me. Pay TV Almost everyone would pay something to see that, and he probably would have wanted to give his fee—which could have been a considerable one—to a conservation fund or something having to do with the environment. It might have been fascinating. And I can’t imagine that it would be the least bit difficult to get somebody to pay a quarter or a half a dollar or a dollar to tune in to see some­thing of that sort. The same would be true with, let’s say, Greta Garbo.

There are a few people like that, people who have been so private, who might conceivably be persuaded to talk on pay cable either because they wanted to give a big sum of money to a charity or maybe they wanted to make it for themselves. I think we are going to see a good deal of diversification in cable over the next dec­ade or so. I shall look forward to seeing it. However, I also think the system on which I operate —commercial television—will be around for a long, long time to come.

PLAYBOY: One last question. How would you like to be remembered?

WALLACE: I would like to be remembered as a professional who was reliable, careful and accurate. And as a man who was giving and caring and honorable.

PLAYBOY: Sounds reasonable.

WALLACE: It sounds reasonable enough. All I have to do is live up to it.

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