Several years earlier the reclusive billionaire, an aviation pioneer, movie mogul, and adventurer, had virtually disappeared. Journalists around the world searched for him.
Along came Clifford Irving, who claimed he had helped Hughes write his autobiography. McGraw Hill and Life magazine were about to publish it. But some questioned the book's authenticity. To set those questions to rest, Irving appeared on 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace.
Revisit this 1972 interview and a recent update in this 60 Minutes Classic.
The first interview of Irving, of course, is known to be a departure from the truth.
When asked in early 1972, if his book was a fake, Irving declared, "It is not."
Irving said he had met the recluse. "Hughes is a man almost as tall as I am, 6 foot 3," Clifford Irving said in the Jan. 16, 1972, interview. Irving added that the millionaire weighs "under 140 pounds."
When asked if Hughes wears a beard, Irving replied, "Not a real one."
"He has on occasion worn false beards and false mustaches and wigs," Irving said.
"There's a James Bond setup here that's out of the worst possible detective novel you could ever read," he said.
Less than two months after the CBS News interview, Irving admitted that his book was a hoax. Time magazine dubbed him "Con Man of the Year." And CBS News, too, gave him an award worthy of his performance.
On March 19, 1972, 60 Minutes nominated Irving as best actor of the year in a starring role.
Irving had to pay back the $765,000 advance to his publisher. He was also convicted of fraud and served 14 months in federal prison.
Recently Mike Wallace interviewed Irving again after 27 years and admitted he couldn't figure whether the author had been telling the truth.
"That's what I wanted to ask you, if you believed me then," Irving said to the veteran journalist recently.
When asked if he was ashamed of lying on 60 Minutes, Irving replies, "Yes. I was....I was lying to everybody. You were not different from anyone else. I was on a train of lies. I couldn't jump off."
So how exactly did Irving develop the idea to create an autobiography of Howard Hughes?
"I was reading a copy of Newsweek, which told of Hughes' isolated state in the Bahamas...and I thought, 'What a wonderful idea to write a biography of him, an authorized biography, and pretend that he's giving me the information,'" Irving says.
Irving said he believed Howard Hughes was too ill to come forward and repudiate the book.
"I figured....I wasn't thinking clearly," Irving adds. "It was a wild idea. I was running away from home. I was being a bad boy. And I loved every minute of it."
But when Hughes finally agreed to a bzarre telephone interview with seven reporters, Irving's story began to unravel. At first, he refused to do interviews.
"I was afraid that if I went before a crowd of newspapermen or a pro like you," he says to Wallace. "I--I would come apart at the seams. I wouldn't be able to go through with this. So I said no interviews. Howard doesn't want me to do any interviews."
Hughes may not have wanted him to, but the publisher insisted, still believing the book was legitimate.
"McGraw Hill came to me and said, 'You have got to do something. You've got to stand up and fight and say this if for real. And we've arranged for you to go on 60 Minutes right after the Super Bowl,'" says Irving. "So with my heart fluttering and that manuscript clutched against my chest for protection, I--I faced you."
When he was asked in 1972 if anyone witnessed his meetings with Howard Hughes, Irving named his researcher, Richard Suskind.
Irving then proceeded with an elaborate anecdote: "And Hughes said, I suppose you know who I am. Suskind said, 'Yes, I do, Mr. Hughes.' He started to stick out his hand, then withdrew it instantly because Hughes is not very keen on shaking hands. Hughes reached into his pocket and pulled out a bag. We still disagree. I say it was a cellophane bag. Suskind says it was a paper bag."
Irving continued: "And he said to Dick Suskind, 'Have a prune?' And Suskind took a prune and said, 'This is an organic prune, isn't it?' Hughes said, 'Yes, yes. How did you know?' He said, 'This is the only kind I eat, though. All the rest are poison.' And then they were off and running on a discussion of organic foods and vitamins and what not, while I stood there like a dummy."
Irving now explains that "I would have believed me if I'd heard that."
"Had I been an onlooker or...I would have believed that man," Irving offers.
"Because obviously he was well rehearsed. I had told the story many times before, the prune story...all the stories," he adds.
He had told them to "McGraw Hill executives. Time-Life executives," according to Irving. "I was filled with the success of my...of my fairytale," Irving says.
When asked if he thought Hughes ever saw that tape, Irving says, "I don't know if he saw it. Probably did. Probably laughed like hell when he saw it. At least my Howard would have laughed. Because he had a great sense of humor."
Being found out to be such a liar took its toll on Irving.
"It was deflating, shaming," says Irving. "It was awful. And I retreated into....Well, I retreated to federal prison."
Irving says he was hardly a model prisoner.
"I was at Allenwood which was called 'the country club,'" says Irving.
"I was kicked out of there," he admits, citing "bad behavior."
"I was caught with a bottle of gin," he says. "nd then I went to Lewisburg penitentiary in solitary....I was expelled from there because I didn't fit in and sent to Danbury, Conn."
That prison was hardly a country club. It was a medium security prison and very confining, according to Irving, who says he didn't like it. "I became chairman of the inmates committee," he recalls. "Got into a lot of trouble. Was accused of fomenting a riot. Was accused of plotting to kill the warden."
In 14 months, he went to three prisons and got into that much trouble.
"I had that propensity. But it all worked out well," Irving says. "I was innocent for a change."
Today, at 68, a repentant Irving divides his time between Mexico and New Mexico. He is the author of more than a dozen books, most of them fiction.
"They're good books. They've all been published," he says of his work.
He means all but one has been printed. The famed autobiography of Howard Hughes, the book that almost ended Irving's career, was published on the Internet last June.
Irving says that he and Hughes never communicated in any way, "except on some astral level. I convinced myself that I knew him intimately."
"You wondered how I could lie so fluently to you," he says to Wallace. "That's because at some level, I believed everything I was telling you. I believed we met. I believed the prune story. I believed I knew his life better than any biographer. Because I had imagined it."