[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. Read the rest of this entry »