The Early Days

<B>Don Hewitt</B> Talks About How <B><I>60 Minutes</B></I> Was Started

After shooting a 60 Minutes story, Don Hewitt almost always peppers his correspondents with questions: Did you ask this? Why didn't you ask that?

Now, take a look at the early days of 60 Minutes, and listen to Hewitt answer a few questions about how it all started.
"I was doing documentaries. And I was kind of bored silly, and I said, 'Why can't television do what Life magazine did. Put out a publication that is in every home in America,'" recalls Hewitt.

"It wasn't so much the stories they did as there were these great covers that were the attraction -- that everybody looked at and believed in. And I said, 'That's what I need. I need great covers.' And I found them."

His great covers included: Mike Wallace, Harry Reasoner, Morley Safer, Dan Rather, Ed Bradley, Diane Sawyer, Steve Kroft, Meredith Viera, Bob Simon, Lesley Stahl and Andy Rooney.

"These were my great covers," says Hewitt. "Backed up by some of the most incredibly talented producers in the business. And that's why it still works, all these years later."

How did Hewitt come up with the famous clock, the "tick, tick, tick"?

"I was looking for something to put the credits over. On the first show, the clock was at the very end and I looked at it and I said, 'Wait a minute. That's too good for the credits. I'm gonna use that at the beginning,' and it became our trademark," says Hewitt.

"So one day, Marvin Hamlisch said to me, 'I know why you use that stopwatch. You're trying to screw some songwriter out of a royalty for a theme song.'"
"I remember our very first broadcast, and we had no competition as far as a news magazine was concerned back then," says Wallace. "We had civil rights, Watergate, all of that all to ourselves. But I think, it was the first show that Richard Nixon made that extraordinary statement."

Nixon: Let me make this one point. Some public men are destined to be loved and other public men are destined to be disliked, but the most important thing about a public man is not whether he's loved or disliked, but whether he's respected. And I hope to restore respect to the presidency at all levels by my conduct.

"It's one of the great quotes that have ever been on this broadcast," says Hewitt.

Although 60 Minutes has been on for 36 years, Hewitt has been at CBS News for more than 50 years. He worked on the first newscasts.

What was television like back in the Stone Age? "It was like a bunch of kids playing with Play Doh," says Hewitt. "We had no idea what we were doing in the early days. … It was so horse and buggy and fun. Nobody knew what he was doing, but you didn't care because who had a television set?"

Hewitt was in a lot of firsts – events, like the presidential debates, that had never been done before in the business.

"It was not my idea to have a presidential debate, but I got tapped to do the first one," says Hewitt. "I was kind of awed by that whole thing. I mean, nobody had ever done this before, and it was up to me to sort of tell these guys what the rules were, what they had to do, what they didn't have to do."

Hewitt is famous for producing the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate, which many have said cost then Vice President Richard M. Nixon the election.

"I remember they looked like they were mismatched. Jack Kennedy looked like some Harvard undergrad, tan, fit, walked into that studio like he owned the world," recalls Hewitt. "Richard Nixon had a staphylococcus infection, banged his knee on the car door when he got out. Looked like death warmed over. … For all intents and purposes, that night, Jack Kennedy won the presidency."
In the early days, Hewitt says he pulled a lot of stunts that would get him fired if he did them today – including urging one now famous reporter to commit assault in the pursuit of one of the biggest news stories of the 20th century.

"I was producing the Evening News with Cronkite, and I did something then so stupid that I'm even ashamed to tell ya I did it," says Hewitt. "After Kennedy died, a guy named Zapruder shows up. He's got the actual film of the assassination and he's out peddling it. He's trying to sell it."

Hewitt said he thought that footage was public domain, so he called Dan Rather, who was the contact in Dallas and told him: "Dan. Go to his house. Tell him you wanna see the tape. After he shows it to ya, sock him. Take it. Take it back to our station and let them put it on tape. We'll have it. Then take it back and give it to him. Now they can only get you for assault. They can't get your robbery because you just gave it back, and let the CBS lawyers argue about who it belongs to."

Hewitt then hung up the phone, changed his mind and called Rather back. "I said, 'Don't go to the house. Don't do that,'" says Hewitt. "There weren't that many rules. We were making things up as we went along, and I was hepped on this thing."
Hewitt also recalls how being late once led to a lucky scoop on the sinking of the Andrea Doria.

"Two ships had collided off the East Coast, and we get there, every crew has already been there. They're all coming back from having been out there and they're looking at us saying, 'Hey pal. You're late. Everybody's got it. Forget it.' I figure, 'Well, what do we do?' So I said to the Coast Guard guy, 'Take us out there anyway. We just wanna see what it looked like,'" says Hewitt.

"We're flying over the ship and I say to the skipper who is with us, 'How long do you think she'll stay afloat?' He said, 'Don't stop that camera. She's gonna go down in the next five minutes.' … It turns over, and like a big dead elephant, it sank right beneath us. …Dumb luck to watch this big, ocean liner go down, and we got it because we were late."

What is Hewitt's proudest moment? He says 60 Minutes and its correspondents.

"I always thought your proudest moment was Frank Sinatra," says Bradley. "Since you used to drag us in the office to show us so many times my first years at 60 Minutes."

"Yeah I liked that show. I really liked that show," says Hewitt. "You know how we did Sinatra? He sent a guy to New York, so this guy says 'Sinatra will do it on three conditions.' ... No questions about gambling. No questions about the mafia. No questions about Cal-Neva Lodge where he's trying to get a license for gambling."

Hewitt refused and says he received a request to meet Sinatra in California. "I walk into his office. He said, 'OK. How do I know I can trust you?' That's where I made the sale," says Hewitt. "I said 'I'm gonna ask you to sit in a seat opposite Walter Cronkite. That's the same seat that Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson sat in. If you don't think you're big enough to sit in that seat, Frank, I wouldn't do it if I were you.'"

Hewitt says it was the "best selling job I ever did in my life." And out of that, he says, "came an incredible broadcast."

And, Cronkite was able to ask Sinatra about the mob connection. "There's really not much to be said about that, and I think the less said the better because it's uh ... there is no answer," said Sinatra during the interview. "When I say no, it's no. But for some reason, it keeps persisting. You see, and consequently, I just refuse to discuss it because it can't make a dent anywhere."

At that time, Hewitt says, Sinatra stopped the interview, took Hewitt into the bedroom and said, "You broke all the rules. … Mickey's rules."

"He said, 'You agreed to them, and I oughta kill you,'" recalls Hewitt. "And I said, 'You know, with anyone else, that's a figure of speech. You probably didn't mean it.' And he said, 'I mean it.' And I said, 'Well, if I have a choice, I'd rather you didn't.'"

Adds Hewitt, who's now 81, "You look back on all these things and you can't believe that you lived through all this."
  • Rebecca Leung

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