Watch CBS News

Morley Safer: A Reporter's Life

Editor's Note: 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer died on May 19, 2016, at the age of 84.

The following is a script from "Morley Safer: A Reporter's Life" which aired on May 15, 2016. David Browning, Katy Textor, Warren Lustig and Michelle St. John are the producers.

Morley Safer has worked in television news for 61 years. He's spent 46 of those years on this broadcast, longer than anyone else. As a traveler, he holds some sort of record, taking planes, trains, boats, even bicycles to the ends of the Earth, often visiting more than once.

Photograph of Morley Safer taken by Yousuf Karsh © Yousuf Karsh

By the time he was 35, he'd covered news in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. It's fair to say that nobody alive today has seen as much and reported on it as brilliantly as Morley.

He's retiring now. And no one here is happy about it. Simply by example, he's made the rest of us better journalists. His writing is the best in the business. His toughness and kindness and sense of humor are legendary. You'll see why in this hour.

Morley Safer: This is Morley Safer reporting...this is Morley Safer...

When he first spoke those words on television, Dwight Eisenhower was president.

Morley Safer: It all began when an officer...

Morley and television news grew up together.

Morley Safer: The question remains: Are the American people prepared to lose more and more young men in Vietnam?

Morley Safer: The revolution, the original Chinese revolution...

Across the continents and across the years, he covered a huge range of stories for some, his slightly old-fashioned name took some getting used to.

Walter Cronkite: OK. What's his name? Morley Safer. Right. Got it.

Morley Safer: My name is Morley Safer...

But eventually, it became a household name.

Morley Safer: I'm Morley Safer. I'm Morley Safer. I'm Morley Safer.

Kid: Morley Safer?

Honoring Morley Safer's five-decade career in only one hour 09:54

Morley Safer: Yes, himself.

Kid: How are you?

Morley Safer: Very well.

Girl: Hi, Morley.

Miss Piggy: Hi, Morley. How are you?

Everybody wanted to meet Morley. Well...almost everybody. In a business that's fast-moving and sometimes cutthroat he survived and prospered. Either outworking, outfoxing, or outliving everyone else and always trying to get to the bottom of things.

Montage of Morley Safer asking questions: What goes through your mind? Are these companies ashamed? What do they do down there? They really go after you. Admit it. You've got a temper. How did we get in this fix? Alright.

Like all of us, he's got his contradictions. He swears -- in all seriousness -- that looking into the camera lens, as he's done for six decades, is not his thing.

Morley Safer: I really don't like being on television. I find it intimidating, discomforting. It makes me uneasy. It is not natural to be talking to a piece of machinery. But the money is very good.

Contradiction number two. Though Morley is impeccable in dress, manner and thought, his office has always been a shambles. Visitors are shocked to see it: an avalanche of books: on art, on history. Old newspapers, old scripts. Remembrances of stories past. The cleaning crews were often horrified.

"He loves being a reporter. He has always loved being a reporter. You get that when you're around him. It rubs off on you."

Jeff Fager: They found a piece of cake behind his desk from like 20 years ago, and a couple of dead mice.

Jeff Fager is the boss at 60 Minutes. He and the rest of us spent many hours in that splendid mess, listening to Morley hold court.

Jeff Fager: He loves being a reporter. He has always loved being a reporter. You get that when you're around him. It rubs off on you.

From the beginning, Morley went to great lengths, literally, to find an offbeat story.

Morley Safer: Here we are on board the good ship Dandahayloo bound from Mali to Furudu...

There he is, 37 years ago, sailing the Indian Ocean to a tiny island called Furudu, having the time of his life.

It's a Long Way to Furudu 17:20

Morley Safer: It is on rare days like this that you must ask do they really pay me to do this...yes.

It turned out there wasn't much happening in Furudu. But it really didn't matter the story was just getting there.

And there he is three years ago, out in the middle of nowhere again: a tiny town called Marfa, in West Texas: cattle country. A place where cowboys live in peace and harmony with artists and hipsters.

Buck Johnston: I mean, it's nutty. It's just this cultural little hub in the middle of nowhere. We think it's the best small town in America.

Jeff Fager: Morley's stories were always an adventure. And, sometimes into places that people couldn't imagine going.

In 1977, viewers traveled with him on the fabled Orient Express. Paris to Istanbul. He found out that somewhere along the way, the train's romantic reputation had gone off the tracks.

"When he was on television, he was Morley Safer. And his interests and his intellect and his humor all came through. And people saw that."

Morley Safer: The train that once carried only first-class passengers now is made up almost entirely of second-class carriages, carrying Turkish migrant workers home.

Tom Brokaw: He's such a natural. He's so good at it. When you watch him, you're just pulled in.

Morley's friend Tom Brokaw of NBC thinks there's a key element to his success.

Tom Brokaw: You have to be who you are. He did not take himself so seriously that he seemed like some kind of a phony. When he was on television, he was Morley Safer. And his interests and his intellect and his humor all came through. And people saw that.

Especially the humor. Morley likes to laugh. And America laughed with him.

Classic Morley Safer interviews on 60 Minutes 06:45

He profiled Barbara Woodhouse, the famous and slightly dotty British dog trainer.

Barbara Woodhouse: Left hand in front Mrs. Field.

Morley Safer: She had the voice of an angry regimental sergeant major. She would say "It's time for walkies!

Barbara Woodhouse: Walkies! Walkies!

Morley Safer: The dogs would just snap to attention.

Barbara Woodhouse: That was excellent.

Miss Piggy: Is your wife here?

Morley Safer: No she's not.

Miss Piggy: Great.

Interviewing the Muppets, he was hit on by that femme fatale, Miss Piggy.

Miss Piggy: Morley, could I see you later? (Of course.) Thank you.

Morley Safer: I must say, she's a fascinating woman. She can be very, very aggressive, but very sexy at the same time.

Miss Piggy: I thought 60 Minutes was a high-class show.

Morley was at his best working with producer John Tiffin. Two politically incorrect guys who loved doing wild and crazy stories. In 1993, they went to a tango club in Finland, of all places. Wondering: how did such a hot-blooded dance wind up in such a cold-blooded place?

Morley Safer: The Finnish tango is not to be confused with the groin-grinding, passionate Latin American version. The Finns have managed to neutralize all that. It's a sad shuffle in a minor key, with lyrics to reaffirm a couple's instinctive sense of hopelessness.

Jeff Fager: Humor's one of the hardest things to do on television. But in a subtle way, Morley accomplished it on a regular basis.

Morley Safer: Could it be that the true secret of happiness is a swift kick in the pants? And not only that...

He's always had humor. Authenticity. And a sharp eye for the absurd.

Morley Safer: To an outsider these shows are another planet, part dazzling, part Rocky Horror Show. Models who seem as angry as they are emaciated, wearing clothes fit for a cadaver.

"Humor's one of the hardest things to do on television. But in a subtle way, Morley accomplished it on a regular basis."

But Morley insists there's one element above all that's crucial for great television.

Morley Safer: What you're aiming at are people's ears more than their eyes. The impact is what you're saying, not so much what they're seeing.

In other words, the writing. Up until fairly recently, he did it the old-fashioned way, on a Royal instead of an Apple. Turning out scripts that were rich in elegance and insight.

Morley Safer: He stares down from the podium like some benevolent bird of prey. Eyes staring past that great beak.

His writing is very much like music. Whether he's profiling a man of music, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas or a man of the cloth.

Morley Safer: Timothy Dolan is hard to miss. This burly, overweight, cherubic Irish-American charges through life like a holy bulldozer.

Timothy Dolan: Where you been?

Morley Safer: And always ready to refuel.

Timothy Dolan: Stick around. Give me a cold beer.

Or writing about a great name from history.

Morley Safer: In the French countryside he loved, on the very edge of the wheat fields he painted so vividly - here lies Vincent van Gogh.

David McCullough: He knows how to make every sentence count without being pretentious. Or showing off.

Historian David McCullough is another typewriter man who knows a thing or two about writing. And he's a big fan of Morley's.

Morley Safer: This is where she grew up, Southwest DC, guns made the music of the street, drugs were the currency, and the violence was not operatic.

David McCullough: His narration, his story gave to whatever the camera was showing a depth and a human value that it wouldn't have had if anybody else had been doing it.

Morley Safer: In your most idle moment are you hearing music? It's a 24-hour radio.

Man: This ought to be some fun to drive.

When he was off the clock, Morley liked the feel of fast cars, especially his Ferrari, and was still leaning on the pedal well into middle age. And he was game for other manly pursuits. One of his most famous profiles was with television legend Jackie Gleason.

Jackie Gleason: And away we go!

Morley Safer: The producer of that piece, Alan Weisman, did something absolutely brilliant. We did it in a bar.

Safer's profile of Gleason, "The Great One," aired on Oct. 28, 1984. CBS News

Jackie Gleason: Now, rack 'em up.

Gleason had played the legendary pool shark Minnesota Fats in the movie "The Hustler" and he knew his way around the table. Morley figured he'd get creamed, but:

Morley Safer: I suddenly was hitting these brilliant shots.

Jeff Fager: He was on fire during that shoot. He almost ran the table.

Jackie Gleason: Hey, hey!

But Gleason rallied and won.

Jackie Gleason: You like that one pal?

Morley Safer: Please.

Though so-so at pool, he's really good at cards. Profiling Sam Simon, one of the creators of "The Simpsons" TV show, Morley made a little money in a Hollywood poker game. Little did the others know that when he worked for CBS in London, he bought himself a Bentley with his poker winnings.

Tom Brokaw: Poker players are tough. And there's no sentimentality about it. And when I heard that Morley was a very good poker player that said to me, "This guy's a tough guy."

And when it was called for, he could do a tough interview. Asking Alec Baldwin, the actor, about the infamous voicemail message he left for his young daughter.

Alec Baldwin's voicemail: I don't give a damn that you're 12 years old or 11 years old or that you're a child or that your mother is a thoughtless pain in the ass.

Morley Safer: How could you do that?

Alec Baldwin: You get so frustrated. And you realize number one-- and it's wrong, it's totally wrong-- that I was really speaking to somebody else when I left that message.

Morley Safer: But you weren't talking to another person, you were talking to your daughter, to a kid, and you said "You thoughtless little pig." I mean, I - find it hard to utter the words.

Alec Baldwin: Did you ever lose your temper with your kids?

Morley Safer: Yeah. But nothing like that.

Alec Baldwin: If you're asking me do I feel bad about leaving that message, I think that goes without saying, at the same time I'm pretty overwhelmed by the sanctimoniousness of people who seem as learned and sober and together as you are who all said to me, "Man, I'm glad they didn't tape some of the things I said to my kids."

Morley Safer: You feel the shame?

Ruth Madoff: Of course, I feel the shame.

Ruth Madoff. The wife of Wall Street scam artist Bernie Madoff, who cheated his clients out of billions of dollars.

Morley Safer: It's a tough name to live with.

Ruth Madoff: It sure is.

Jeff Fager: And he was very respectful, but he was tough. It was Morley's human side. He's asking a question on behalf of all of us.

Morley Safer: It's really hard for people to believe that you didn't know, that you must have known.

Ruth Madoff: I can't explain it. I mean, I trusted him. Why would I ever think that there was something sinister going on?

It's worth noting how many of Morley's best interviews were with women.

Meryl Streep: Oh, this is my high school yearbook picture. Oh God.

He simply found them more open in conversation than men. Meryl Streep.

Morley Safer: She was fascinated by the classics.

Katharine Hepburn at her best 14:32

Meryl Streep: And I loved Carole Lombard and I loved Kate Hepburn and Bette Davis. And Barbara Stanwyck. I like girls with attitude. You know? Moxie. There's an old word.

Morley Safer: Do you feel like a legend?

Katharine Hepburn: I don't think you feel like anything, you feel like a bore.

He'd interviewed Katharine Hepburn 32 years earlier. Talk about moxie.

Morley Safer: If you hadn't been an actress what would you have been?

Katharine Hepburn: I've never thought. I would have tormented some man I suppose and had about 8 children and tormented them.

Morley Safer: Hepburn scared the hell out of me.

Katharine Hepburn: What the hell is it?

Morley Safer: A granite woman, in her opinions and her character.

There was Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue magazine. The fashion arbiter with a reputation as fearsome as Hepburn's.

Morley Safer: The blurb on your unauthorized biography reads she's a perfectionist. An inside look at the competitive bitch eat bitch world of fashion. An accurate uh? (A bitch?) Perfectionist? (Perfectionist.) Well let's try bitch first...

Dolly Parton: You want me to ask me to sing it or you want me to just wup it out for ya? (Safer: Just wup it out for me.)

Dolly Parton. She and Morley got along famously to say the least. She wrote a song called "Dumb Blonde," which people in the music world found she definitely was not.

Dolly Parton: You know I look like a woman but I think like a man. And in this world of business, that has helped me a lot. Because by the time they think that I don't know what's going on, I done got the money and gone.

Betty Ford: I don't feel unliberated when I'm sitting here talking to you...

He interviewed first lady betty ford.

Betty Ford: Didn't the fact that I had the cancer operation and the publicity of that save a lot of people's lives?

Tom Brokaw: When he talked to accomplished women, he wasn't patronizing in any way. Here was a gentleman who appreciated their gifts and put them at ease.

Helen Mirren: Morley, could you?

Morley Safer: Of course.

Jeff Fager: Helen Mirren fell in love with him. And I think he might have fallen in love with her.

A veteran of movie nude scenes, Mirren suggested to Morley: let's get naked.

Helen Mirren: You should try it.

Morley Safer: Well, no.

Helen: Yes, I think we should do this interview both of us in the nude you'd love it. Go on.

Morley Safer: Well, what the hell.

Their encounter had a Hollywood ending.

Morley Safer: We both looked over and saw this ridiculously beautiful sunset. And just instinctively held hands and walked into the sunset.

Morley's curiosity -- a key element in journalism -- included a fascination with how things work.

Morley Safer: We're looking at the future.

Colin Guin: And then I can spin around us...

Morley Safer: And whether we like it or not, the future is looking back at us....

He's always been up for a story about a new gadget - or a backstage look at how familiar things are produced. He went to the Philadelphia mint to see, literally, how money is made.

Edmund Moy: We're making a couple million pennies a day.

He went to Hollywood to watch director James Cameron put the finishing touches on his blockbuster "Avatar."

James Cameron: We're gonna have to push that smoke element back.

[Flavorist: This is a home run.]

And he spent time with the Flavorists...

Flavorist: Strawberry creations. This is a chicken flavor.

...people who put together chemicals that taste like real food.

Man: This is the chicken in the hose.

Morley Safer: Chicken in the hose?

Man: And it comes out in a dry cake form.

Chicken just like grandma used to make.

Morley Safer: What is growing here?

He kept up with new discoveries in science.

Scientist: This is actually an ear mold.

Marveling at one of its latest miracles: an artificial heart valve, grown in the lab from human cells.

Morley Safer: It's beating!

Marveling as well at a young scientific genius.

Morley Safer: This is Jack Andraka, age 15, as he beats out 1,500 contestants and wins a $100,000 prize with his invention. A test for pancreatic cancer that could save lives.

Another life saver: Forrest Bird, inventor of the modern medical respirator.

In the tradition of great American tinkerers, he made his prototypes from scratch.

Forrest Bird: I went to the hardware store and got a doorknob. You can see this doorknob right here at the top.

Morley found Bird so fascinating he started talking -- only half jokingly - about doing a series of reports titled "Geezers You Should Know. "

Marty Cooper: I said, "Joel, this is Marty Cooper..."

For geezer number two he chose Marty Cooper, the man widely considered the father of the cell phone, here recreating the first call he made years ago on his little phone, as he put it.

Morley Safer: Little phone? What are you talking about? Little phone.

Marty Cooper: Well, relatively small. I mean, after all, it only weighed two and a half pounds.

Colin Guinn: Let it just, let it keeping going...

"I don't think anybody in the history of broadcast journalism has a body of work as significant, as varied, as large and as impressive as Morley Safer."

And he made an historic find of his own.

Morley Safer: On our Sunday in the park with drones, we discovered that man never needs to exercise the dog again. Just sic the drones on him.

Morley Safer: It ends here...

61 years on the air. Covering everything from the cold war to cyberspace with great perception and wisdom and humor.

Jeff Fager: It's the range, I think, that is most impressive about Morley. I mean, I don't think anybody in the history of broadcast journalism has a body of work as significant, as varied, as large and as impressive as Morley Safer.

Morley's Range

From left to right, 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace and Morley Safer with Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes, 1975. CBS Photo Archive

At the outset of World War II, as Canada joined Britain and France in declaring war on Nazi Germany, Morley was a 7-year-old kid in Toronto.

The Safer family had struggled through the Great Depression: reading was about their only affordable pleasure. Morley followed the war news in the papers, and also discovered the writings of Ernest Hemingway, the novelist, adventurer, and war correspondent. Hemingway became Morley's hero. And by war's end, an idea took hold that he couldn't shake: living the life of a foreign correspondent.

Newsreel: Surrender. The great news of the century. And in Canada, as across the world, both wild elation and sober thankfulness...

After the war, Morley took up sports in high school and read more Hemingway. He went to college, but only for a few weeks. He dropped out. He had other things on his mind.

Morley Safer: I wanted to be a reporter. I was young and I was restless and I wanted to get out and do it.

He got a job on a small town newspaper, and bounced around the business for a few years, sharpening his skills, and learning the essentials of newswriting.

Morley Safer: Certainly respect for the language. Keeping the mush out of the story. And getting to the heart of it very quickly.

When he was 24, a door opened that would change his life. He was hired as a television news writer at the CBC, Canada's premier broadcasting network.

Morley Safer: They had trouble getting good people. Because no one in newspaper journalism considered television real journalism. And that was my view of it too, by the way. But, I must tell you. Within about two weeks, I - "God, this is really fun."

[Morley Safer: The predominant feeling among the Europeans in central Africa is that time is running out...]

And soon enough, he was a foreign correspondent, the job he'd dreamed of.

[Morley Safer: At this moment I'm standing in East Germany...]

His passport filled up quickly. From his base in London, he covered shooting wars in Algeria and Cyprus. He reported from Budapest, Tel Aviv, Amman, Damascus, Rome. For Morley - the college dropout - the world was his university.

In late 1963, he took part in a CBC discussion of the year's events. One of the other reporters on the panel was angling for a job at CBS News. And sent this tape, as an audition...

[Morley Safer, roundtable: I'd like to speak for a moment about the possibility of a brushfire war...]

...but instead, it was Morley who caught the eye of the American network's executives, who hired him to join the prestigious CBS bureau in London.

Morley Safer: So I really felt that I'd joined the Yankees.

[Ed Murrow: Hello, America. This is Ed Murrow, speaking from London.]

Morley would be following in the footsteps of Edward R. Murrow, the CBS man in London during the war years. A hero to countless listeners for his vivid accounts of the Nazi bombing of the city.

[Ed Murrow: There are no words to describe the thing that is happening. The courage of the people, the flash and roar of the guns rolling down the streets, the stench of the air raid shelters.]

By the time Morley got to CBS, Murrow had moved on. But his mystique remained.

Morley Safer: My desk was Murrow's desk. Murrow's old World War II CBS desk. So there was a lot of baggage. I mean, wonderful, positive baggage.

But he'd barely settled in London when a war 6,000 miles away drew him in. A CBS executive in New York called to say: you're going to Vietnam.

Morley Safer: And he said "It'll just be for a couple of months. I'm gonna leave it open-ended but we'll call it three months because this thing's not gonna last.

He soon learned otherwise, arriving in Saigon in early 1965 as more American troops came in and more coffins went out.

Morley Safer: There was clearly an enormous buildup going on in terms of a ground base for a major American commitment to this war. I mean, it was in the air. It was, you could taste it.

[Morley Safer: Goddamn it, we're in the middle of these guys...we seem to be pinned down by snipers.]

He did three tours in Vietnam, reporting in language as spare and direct as Hemingway's.

Morley Safer: It was almost like looking at old newsreels of Korea and the Pacific War. The same young-old faces, the same shattered landscape, the same agony.

David McCullough: There was a compassion to what he was saying. But there was a melancholy. There was a sadness to it.

Morley Safer: Behind me, over here...

He barely survived a helicopter crash on the edge of enemy territory and had plenty of reminders of the random nature of death on the battlefield interviewing a young man whose tank was about to take a direct hit.

Morley Safer to man: Take care.

Morley Safer: Seconds later, the boy is dead. Blown to bits when the tank exploded.

Joe Stringham: Tomorrow we're going on Operation Matchstick....

Fifty-one years ago, Joe Stringham was an army captain commanding a Green Beret Special Forces Unit when he and Morley first met.

Joe Stringham: He was all business and he reported what he saw nothing staged nothing phony.

He went out with Stringham's unit of American and South Vietnamese soldiers, searching for the Viet Cong.

Morley Safer: There's no such thing as a safe patrol. No such thing as a routine day.

Joe Stringham: Beastly hot. It's dusty. It's hard work. And there's one other thing, they were carrying a ton of equipment. Got a lot more stuff than we were carrying.

Morley Safer: Operation Matchstick slogged through the streams infested with leeches.

Joe Stringham: Morley was right in back of me, every step of the way. I had to do it. He didn't.

Morley would come under enemy fire several times in Vietnam the first time was with Joe Stringham's unit.

Joe Stringham: Morley, he was cool as a hog on ice.

Morley Safer: The end of the long road back to Ben Cat...

Back at base camp, after walking for 10 miles a day - all Morley wanted was some water for his feet.

Joe Stringham: He was brand new at the thing, with soft feet.

A friendship had been born that's lasted a half a century.

Joe Stringham: He is a very cool guy.

In August of 1965, came Morley's most controversial report. It started as a routine mission with a company of U.S. Marines.

Morley Safer: I was talking to a young captain, and I said, "Where are we going, what are we doing?" And he said, "A place called Cam Ne. We're going to punish this village." I had never heard that word before, in that context.

Morley Safer's watershed report from Cam Ne 03:36

Morley Safer: It first appeared that the Marines had been sniped at and that a few houses were made to pay.

Morley Safer: As we came in the guys started lighting up. With matches, with lighters, with flamethrowers. And they were clearing these people out. And torching their houses.

Morley Safer: This was not like any operation I had ever been on before with American troops. Or with any troops anywhere, quite honestly.

Morley Safer: This is what the war in Vietnam is all about...

Morley Safer: It smelled very wrong.

Morley Safer: The old and the very young, the women and the old men who remained will never forget that August afternoon.

Many Americans were shocked at what they'd seen.

Tom Brokaw: He was tearing the cover off about the pacification of the citizens of Vietnam. You know, we were always going to make them our friends but then we were burning down their huts at the same time.

Controversial report changed war coverage in U.S. 03:46

At the White House, President Johnson and his advisors were enraged. Morley found himself in the administration's cross hairs.

Jeff Fager: The president of the United States wants you fired for your reporting. That's tough. That's really tough.

Morley Safer: There were allegations that I was a KGB agent. That I was a well-known Communist.

Tom Brokaw: He was not the Morley Safer of 60 Minutes at that point. He was a grunt correspondent for CBS. And I think that made him a larger target, if you will.

But CBS stood behind him. His career flourished. And a few years later, he was checking in for a flight from London to New York, for a new assignment: becoming Morley Safer of 60 Minutes. Never one to waste time, he shot part of a story about airline security.

Morley Safer on plane: Just how safe is it to disarm a gunman on a plane? I'll show you.

Morley Safer: A funny thing could have happened to me on my way to this broadcast but it didn't...

For Morley, 60 Minutes was a gamble: the broadcast was finding its way, the ratings weren't great. Forty-six years later he holds the record for the longest run ever on primetime television.

In a moment, Lesley Stahl with our favorite Morley stories.

A Few Favorites

Mike Wallace, Dan Rather, Morley Safer, and Don Hewitt of 60 Minutes. November 6, 1975. CBS Photo Archive

To mark Morley's retirement, we added up all the stories he's done for 60 Minutes: a grand total of 919. If you strung them all together and watched for eight hours a day, it would take nearly a month to see everything. So here's a shortcut. We're going to show you some of Morley's favorites. And what some of his friends consider his greatest hits as well. Starting with a remarkable trip back through time.

This story was called "Market Street." About a film taken on San Francisco's main thoroughfare over a century ago.

David McCullough: That one film opens the door to us into that world of San Francisco right on the eve of the earthquake.

To historian David McCullough, there's something magical about seeing the people in an old film like this.

David McCullough: And they're moving those people they're not still in the photograph they're alive, they turn and look at you, they're real.

For a century, no one knew exactly when the movie was made. But film historian David Kiehn looked at license plates, weather forecasts, old newspaper clippings - and figured out it was taken five days before the 1906 earthquake that nearly leveled the city.

Morley Safer: The odds are - some of the people you see had just days to live.

And because of one man's curiosity, a mystery was solved.

David McCullough: Which is largely what history is about. It's a detective hunt.

Twenty-four years ago Billy Bulger was the most powerful politician in Massachusetts, a natural for a Morley profile.

Jeff Fager: Incredibly colorful, articulate, smart character.

Back then, Jeff Fager was a young producer working with Morley. The Bulger story is one of his favorites.

Mr. President 16:31

Jeff Fager: Billy was president of the Massachusetts State Senate, and a real boss. Brother was a mobster. He was the direct opposite. You know, fluent in Greek and Latin. A real scholar.

Bulger loved to bash the press...

Billy Bulger: I mean, who the hell are they?

...and that included Morley.

Billy Bulger: Morley's gonna be good to me, aren't you Morley? That's how they all start out, I'm your pal. What is it?

Morley Safer: Just remember I'm editing it.

Billy Bulger: Grab yer camera and get outta here.

Jeff Fager: We loved that. It was pure fun.

There was a story called the "French Paradox" in 1991 that got Tom Brokaw's attention.

Tom Brokaw: In our household our favorite story was about red wine and how it was good for your health.

Research suggested that despite all the high fat content in their cooking, the French had relatively low levels of heart disease, stemming perhaps from their fondness for red wine.

Morley Safer: The explanation of the paradox may lie in this inviting glass.

Scientists have debated the issue ever since. But there's no denying that red wine consumption in America took off after Morley's report.

Tom Brokaw: I think he probably got more calls that Sunday night than any other CBS correspondent had ever gotten about, "Oh my God, thank God, you know you did it all for us."

All in the Family 12:28

One of Morley's favorites was the story he uncorked about the Antinori family of Italy, winemakers since the year 1385.

Morley Safer: People use these wonderful words to describe taste. There's personality. What else?

Alessia: The elegance. The wine has to be elegant.

Morley Safer: Their domain stretches from the legendary vineyards of Tuscany and Umbria to their property in California's Napa Valley. Antinori is perhaps the oldest family business on Earth.

Tom Brokaw: One of the things about Morley that we were all conscious of was that a lot of his journalism was about vacation. He'd find an assignment that would take him to Rome at the right time of the year or to Paris at the right time of the year.

And who could blame him? He'd paid his dues. And, as long as the story was a good one, why not? He loved the museums of Paris. The beauty of the city, and the French landscape. But he really loved Italy. The history. The food. The operatic nature of the Italians themselves.

In 1987, he went to Casa Verdi, the home established by composer Giuseppe Verdi for old opera singers.

Morley Safer: Erma Colasanti, mezzo-soprano, age 70.

Morley Safer: Giuseppe Manacciti, baritone, age 83.

Morley Safer: I have never been in a situation where there were so many egos bouncing off the walls.

Morley Safer: Each person I spoke to here said they love this place but each one wondered what all those untalented others were doing here.

The story is one of Morley's all-time favorites.

Morley Safer: The years may have damaged the vocal cords. They have done nothing to diminish the spirit.

He explored the Colosseum in Rome, reporting on the massive effort to clean up the landmark, scrubbing away centuries of dust and grime and auto exhaust.

And he had a rare tour of the Vatican Library, an historical gold mine. Books, maps, coins, priceless manuscripts going back a thousand years or more.

Morley Safer: It's one of the really great experiences, the sense of touching history is overwhelming.

But it almost never happened. The night before shooting was to begin, a cab backed into Morley and knocked him flat on his face. He looked terrible. Sunglasses didn't seem appropriate at the Vatican. So a movie makeup artist was summoned, and worked on him for two hours every morning. And he looked fine, as long as the camera wasn't too close.

Morley loves art. He knows art history backwards and forwards. And he's always been a weekend artist himself, doing paintings, drawings, etchings. Even pictures of boring hotel rooms he's stayed in over the years.

But he's always found some aspects of the modern art scene laughable. And said so in a 1993 report.

Morley Safer: ...recently a vacuum cleaner, just like this one and the one down in your basement, was sold for $100,000. Also a sink went for $121,000 and a pair of urinals for $140,000 dollars.

Artist: I was giving a definition of life and death, this is the eternal.

Yes...But Is It Art? 11:59

His premise was: that it's gotten to the point where just about anything can be palmed off as art and sold to people who have money to burn.

Morley Safer: This one, a canvas of scrawls done with the wrong end of a paint brush, bears the imaginative title of "Untitled." It's by Cy Twombly, and was sold for $2,145,000. And that's dollars, not Twomblys.

Morley Safer: The response, the outrage here in New York was extraordinary. I couldn't believe it.

Morley Safer: It's a white rectangle. Right, he's a minimal artist. I would say so.

Jeff Fager: The art world went crazy. Crazy. He still feels it. They don't like him for it.

But he wears the criticism as a badge of honor. It's another of his favorite stories.

Morley Safer: I stand by everything I said and will say it again at the drop of a brush.

But the story he's most proud of was a 1983 report on a man named Lenell Geter, arrested in Texas for a holdup at a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Lenell Geter's in Jail 24:40

Lenell Geter: One of the officers placed a gun in the back of my head and said "If you move I'll blow your head off."

Geter, an engineer by trade, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Lenell Geter: I consider myself a hostage in the house of injustice.

Morley Safer: The more we started to check it out, the more this story and conviction just smelled to high heaven.

Even eyewitnesses to the holdup agreed.

Morley Safer and eyewitnesses: Is that the man that held up the Kentucky Fried Chicken? (No.) Is that the man that held up the Kentucky Fried Chicken? (No sir.)

The questions raised by the report played a major role in getting Geter's conviction thrown out. Morley considers it his finest moment.

Lenell Geter: When 60 Minutes ran their segment I was out within about seven days. And I was able to pick my life up, marry my college sweetheart. I wouldn't have a family had he not taken the time to come down there and take a snapshot of my experience, which was a travesty of justice. He saved my life.

In Closing

Morley Safer with his wife, Jane, and their dog.

Back in the swinging sixties when Morley was a bachelor based in London, his pals doubted that he would ever marry. Bulletproof, one of them said.He proved them wrong in 1968, marrying Jane Fearer. His best man was his best friend, John Tiffin, who produced more than a hundred of Morley's reports. As for Jane, she's been his protector, intellectual-sparring partner and biggest fan for going on 48 years now. Their daughter, Sarah, grew up to pursue freelance journalism and photography. There are three grandchildren. And they all went on safari in Africa a few years ago. And Morley, of course, knew as much or more about the place than the tour guides.

Now, it's time to retire. For those who truly love their work the decision to hang it up is often difficult. And so it's been with Morley. And so it was with his colleague and sometimes nemesis, the late Mike Wallace. Morley once compared their troubled relationship to two scorpions fighting in a bottle. And when Mike retired 10 years ago, Morley interviewed him.

Mike Wallace: It's been a long time.

Morley Safer: It has been a long time.

It was a strange and salty encounter. Hard to tell, at times, who was interviewing whom.

Morley Safer: Do you feel it's time to maybe pack it in and reflect or -

Mike Wallace: Reflect about what?

Morley Safer: Whatever...

Mike Wallace: Gimme a break. Reflect? What am I going to reflect about?

Morley Safer: You know, you're right.

Mike Wallace: About the fact that I'm not working?

Morley Safer: You're absolutely right.

From the start, there was often bad blood between the two: fighting over stories, not speaking for months at a time.

Mike Wallace: When I wanted to do a story, and you wanted to do a story, and it's the same story - and...

Morley Safer: And I come into the office the next day, you're out of town doing the story.

Mike Wallace: You mean to say something...

Morley Safer: It happened more than once.

Mike Wallace: What story?

Morley Safer: I'm not gonna go into details -

Mike Wallace: Oh, please, no, no, no...

They were "frienemies" for years. Great pals, except when they weren't.

Morley Safer: How did you feel about me coming? Uh, intruder? Somebody you could push around?

Mike Wallace: Oh, no, no, no. On the contrary, I was so far ahead of you. I mean, everybody knew me. Who the dickens was Morley Safer?

Morley finally got Mike to fess up.

Mike Wallace: I was jealous of you. I was jealous of you.

Morley Safer: Jealous of me?

Mike Wallace: Yes, I'll tell you why. Because you had done so much in Vietnam. I mean, superb reporting. And you wrote gorgeously.

They talked about the pressures of travel, the weeks and months away from home and the family.

Morley Safer: Do you feel guilt about that? I know I certainly do, all the birthdays that I missed and all of those things -- I still feel very guilty about that.

Mike Wallace: You feel guilty about it?

Morley Safer: Yes.

Mike Wallace: Of course.

It ended on a heartfelt note.

Mike Wallace: And the fact of the matter is that I love you, respect you, admire you.

Morley Safer: It's been a very bumpy and satisfying road, though.

Mike Wallace: That's exactly right.

In closing, we'll try to avoid sugary sentimentality, or as Morley put it, the mawkish and the maudlin, two very Morley-esque words.

He chose them all very carefully. At 60 Minutes he developed a new way to tell stories for television, not just with language, but with a leisurely pace and a sense of style. He was an original voice. There has never been one quite like him. Literate and urbane, he is a romantic at heart who believes in old-fashioned things like honor, fair play, civility and courage.

He once wrote a letter to then-CBS chairman Larry Tisch telling him he was ruining the news division. Morley never got a reply, but he didn't get fired either. You cannot overstate his importance to this broadcast over the past 40-odd years. And Morley, we know you're at home watching: we wouldn't be here without you.

Morley Safer's 2000 interview courtesy of the Television Academy Foundation's Archive of American Television

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.