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Newsman Mike Wallace dead at 93
Updated 4/9/2012 3:44 PM ET
60 Minutes star Mike Wallace combined a combative interview style with show-business panache, and his death marks the near end of the era of the tough, old-school reporter.

In a career that spanned seven decades, Wallace evolved from a radio entertainer in the 1940s and TV game-show host in the '50s to the no-nonsense inquisitor of CBS' top-rated news magazine, 60 Minutes, which launched in 1968. He applied his trademark reporting technique — steely questioning, skeptical debating and ambush-style assault on the unsuspecting — well into his 80s.

Wallace died Saturday night at a care facility in New Canaan, Conn., nearly a month shy of his 94th birthday. No cause of death was reported, but he had been in declining health following triple bypass heart surgery in 2008. He did not appear at the January memorial service for Andy Rooney, another 60 Minutes legend, who died last November at age 92.

PHOTOS: Mike Wallace's life in pictures MORE: Timeline of Wallace's life BLOG: Memorial tributes planned

Despite his dogged approach, which fused the confrontational methodology of a prosecutor with the flair of a Broadway showman, the famous and infamous lined up to be grilled. His who's who list of newsmakers included Malcolm X, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Iran revolutionary Ayatollah Khomeini, China's Deng Xiaoping, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. Add to those seven U.S. presidents: George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy. He once made Hollywood legend Barbra Streisand cry during what was supposed to be a friendly profile ahead of the 1991 film release The Prince of Tides.

CBS said a program dedicated to Wallace will be broadcast on 60 Minutes on Sunday.

"All of us at CBS News and particularly at 60 Minutes owe so much to Mike. Without him and his iconic style, there probably wouldn't be a 60 Minutes," said Jeff Fager, CBS News chairman. "There simply hasn't been another broadcast journalist with that much talent. It almost didn't matter what stories he was covering, you just wanted to hear what he would ask next. Around CBS, he was the same infectious, funny and ferocious person as he was on TV. We loved him, and we will miss him very much."

By the time he retired in 2006, Wallace had appeared on 60 Minutes for 38 consecutive seasons, helping make the news magazine a top 10 show for 23 seasons.

Fellow 60 Minutes star Morley Safer said that Wallace took to heart the old reporter's pledge "to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." He characterized himself as "nosy and insistent," Safer said Sunday on Face the Nation.

Even after his official departure, Wallace continued as "correspondent emeritus," scoring an exclusive interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a scoop that won Wallace his 21st Emmy.

Wallace again made headlines in January 2008, interviewing baseball legend Roger Clemens over allegations of steroid abuse. Later that month, Wallace underwent triple-bypass heart surgery.

First hire for '60 Minutes'

In his prime, his dramatic approach to solid journalism made for great TV. As the first hire for 60 Minutes in 1968, Wallace fast became the resident tough guy, zinging subjects with "gotcha" questions or getting them to say something they later wished they hadn't — "Mike Wallace moments," his son Chris Wallace said.

New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta said Wallace will be remembered as "the guy who stuck his microphone in the faces of a lot of powerful and corrupt people and asked them embarrassing questions."

Memorable moments included Wallace getting a Chicago businessman to admit on camera that he kept two sets of books: one for himself and one for the taxman. "I said, 'Look, between you and me, Chicagoans do this all the time, right?' And he says, 'Between you and me, you're right.' Between you and me and the whole middle of America! What a moment!" Wallace told USA TODAY in a 2000 interview.

During the 1980 hostage crisis in Iran, Wallace looked the Ayatollah Khomeini in the eye and, quoting Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's appraisal, said, "He calls you — Imam, forgive me, his words, not mine — a lunatic."

Wallace recalled, "I figured, 'What the hell, is he going to throw me in jail?' "

His 1998 60 Minutes interview with Jack Kevorkian, the "Doctor of Death," along with a clip showing Kevorkian administering a lethal injection to a terminal patient, led to a murder conviction, despite the physician's argument that assisted suicide and euthanasia should be legal. Wallace later got the first interview with Kevorkian after his release from prison in 2007.

$120 million libel case

There were also low moments. The first involved a report on enemy strength during the Vietnam War that led to a $120 million libel case against Wallace and CBS by the subject of that report, Gen. William Westmoreland.

Westmoreland and CBS ultimately settled the 1982 suit just before the case was set to go to a jury. But the high-profile legal case threw Wallace into depression. "To be sued by him and sit in a drafty federal courtroom for five months and be called a liar, fraud and cheat was not easy," Wallace told USA TODAY, pulling out an analysis by the CIA that he said confirmed everything he reported. "The facts. One hundred percent of everything we said," Wallace said, slapping the document.

The second involved a 1995 exposé on the tobacco industry in which the network, fearing litigation, backed away from running Wallace's story with whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand. The interview with the Brown & Williamson tobacco company researcher had been delayed for months for fear of lawsuits before it eventually aired in February 1996.

The tobacco incident was dramatized in the 1999 theatrical film The Insider. But Wallace, portrayed by actor Christopher Plummer, publicly trashed the Michael Mann movie. He felt betrayed by Lowell Bergman, his producer on that story, who worked with Mann on the film. They didn't speak after the story, and Wallace said that large parts of the film were made up, and "by the end, they had me finding my moral compass, which was laughable."

Bergman defended the accuracy of the film, the added drama aside, but agreed to disagree with his former boss. "We're all human," he said. "I've made some mistakes, and Mike's made some mistakes."

Columnist and TV analyst Jonathan Alter, who wrote extensively about Wallace when he covered the news media for Newsweek, said that after the Westmoreland and Wigand reports, Wallace "was tormented by the questioning of his journalistic skills. … His torment was testimony to how seriously he took his craft."

The sharp-witted and equally sharp-tongued Wallace seemed to lose his illustrious career in the fog of memory in his final years. In a December 2011 interview with Playboy, Wallace's son Chris, a Fox News anchor, talked about his father.

"My dad is 93 and showing it for the first time," Wallace said. "Physically, he's OK. Mentally, he's not. He still recognizes me and knows who I am, but he's uneven. The interesting thing is, he never mentions 60 Minutes. It's as if it didn't exist. It's as if that part of his memory is completely gone."

Chris Wallace said the only thing his father talked about at that point in his life was his children and grandchildren. "There's a lesson there. This is a man who had a fabulous career and for whom work always came first. Now he can't even remember it."

Career started in radio

Wallace was born Myron Leon Wallace on May 9, 1918. His father, an immigrant, was an insurance broker. His family had hoped he would become a doctor, but Wallace discovered a love for journalism while working at the University of Michigan's college radio station.

By 1941, he was the announcer for the popular radio program The Green Hornet before serving as a Naval communications officer during World War II. Following the war, he worked as a news reporter at Chicago's WMAQ.

In the early 1950s, Wallace joined the CBS network in New York. He eventually left CBS and made his name as a tough interviewer with the programs Night Beat and The Mike Wallace Interview. He also hosted games shows and entertainment programs.

His professional success was not mirrored in his personal life. Married four times, Wallace "had difficulty expressing his feelings for people he loved," Chris Wallace said.

It was the death of son Peter, 19, in a 1962 mountain-climbing accident in Greece that prompted Wallace to move solely to news. "I felt I owed it to Peter," Wallace told USA TODAY, noting that Peter had expressed an interest in journalism, and Wallace had told him it was a noble profession.

That year, Wallace hosted the CBS News series Biography, later becoming a correspondent in Vietnam before joining 60 Minutes. There, his arguments with his close friend, the late producer Don Hewitt, were legendary.

In later years, Wallace grew closer to Chris. In the 2011 Playboy interview, Chris talked about their relationship, how difficult it was and that it wasn't much of one until he was 14. At an awards ceremony last month, he expressed his appreciation.

"He wasn't easy. But he was vibrant, and funny, and demanding and truly a great reporter," Chris Wallace said.

He said their relationship began to blossom years ago over meals at legendary New York watering hole Toots Shor's. "It was a big roast-beef place where famous athletes would hang out. My dad knew I was a huge sports fan. I still am. Frank Gifford would be there, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Arcaro, Howard Cosell. I loved seeing these people. And slowly my dad and I got to know each other over slabs of meat. He really became my father after that."

Contributing: Peter Johnson

Posted 4/8/2012 1:38 PM ET
Updated 4/9/2012 3:44 PM ET
Television journalist Mike Wallace died over the weekend at age 93. CBS said a 60 Minutes tribute of Wallace will be broadcast April 15.
Evan Agostini, AP
Television journalist Mike Wallace died over the weekend at age 93. CBS said a 60 Minutes tribute of Wallace will be broadcast April 15.