Honoring Morley Safer's career in only one hour

How do you condense a 52-year CBS News career -- including 919 stories for 60 Minutes -- into an hour-long tribute? Three producers discuss the challenge

Morley Safer, 60 Minutes' longest-serving correspondent, died this week at age 84. Last week, the broadcast aired a tribute in honor of his retirement after 46 years on the broadcast.

To celebrate Safer's remarkable tenure, executive producer Jeff Fager called on an in-house dream team -- editor Warren Lustig and producers David Browning, Katy Textor and Michelle St. John -- to create the tribute that aired Sunday night.

But how do you condense five decades -- that included more than 900 stories -- into a one-hour broadcast? That was the enormous challenge they faced.

"In the simplest terms, we set out to capture Morley," says Browning, Safer's longtime producer, in the 60 Minutes Overtime video above. "You want to make sure that what you're showing is representative of his work and the great variety of work that he's done."

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That work included a groundbreaking 1965 CBS News report from Cam Ne, Vietnam, where Safer showed U.S. Marines torching villagers' huts, and a 60 Minutes story on Lenell Geter, a black man in Texas wrongly accused of armed robbery and later exonerated as a result of Safer's report.

There were countless stories, on every imaginable topic, each tale uniquely his own. "They were works of art almost," Fager explains. "What makes a story a Morley story is his original voice. And by that I mean not just the timbre, but [also] the quality of the storytelling, his writing."

Fager recalls working as Safer's producer and bringing him the first draft of a script. Safer would look at it, stare out the window for a few seconds, and then quickly scroll a piece of paper into his trusty typewriter and rework it to his own satisfaction. Textor showed Overtime one of her scripts with a yellow piece of paper taped on where Safer had added his own better-written line.

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"He simply had this ability to take it to the next level," Browning explains. "There's an old saying of Mark Twain's that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. And that's what Morley did. He was lightning."

While Safer claims his stories were aimed more at the ear than the eye, Fager says the correspondent's genius was his ability to link the two. "You see lines. You hear lines. You experience while you're watching a connection with his writing to the picture," he says.


Safer didn't take himself too seriously, his colleagues say, and liked to entertain his viewers. "Morley's advice was always: if you can get them to laugh, you're home free," recalls Textor. "He knew that if he could get a chuckle, you were pretty good. You were going to be okay."

He also had an eye for the absurd. An amateur artist in his spare time, Safer got a kick out of ridiculing pretentiousness in the art world, even if it meant gently mocking collectors as they showed him around. "Morley has always had a great sense of smoking out phonies and smoking out phony stories and things that just aren't right," Browing says.

Some of Safer's most memorable pieces were offbeat - or downright bizarre: A story on the popularity of tango in Finland, for instance, or a tale of crime and punishment on Furudu, a tiny island in the Maldives.

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"Morley discovered [that] a story could be essentially what you made it to be," says Browning. "If you found an interesting place to go and an interesting cast of characters, it really didn't matter if there was a huge headline there. As we say in the broadcast, the journey was really the story."

It was a journey Safer enjoyed immensely. "I've led a charmed life," he said in an interview. "I mean, in every respect, I've led a charmed life as a reporter, as an individual. A lot of it is, as I said, blood, sweat, toil, and tears, but a lot of it is pure, unadulterated luck, and I've been a very lucky guy."


Photos courtesy of CBS News, CBS Photo Archive and Morley Safer

The video above was produced by Lisa Orlando, and edited by Lisa Orlando and Will Croxton.