"Mike Wallace is here"

"Mike Wallace is here"

There was the probing question, the distinctive voice, even the trenchcoat. If anyone personified the image of a network television correspondent in the second half of the 20th century it was Mike Wallace.

As Dick Cavett noted, the mention of Wallace's name "has been known to strike fear in the hearts of brave men and women."

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A new documentary depicts the dramatic life and career of the legendary CBS News correspondent, whose no-holds-barred interview style and indefatigable showmanship helped make "60 Minutes" must-see TV. CBS News

It was Wallace's hard-hitting reports that made him a household name (or as Barbra Streisand coyly described him, "You're a son-of-a-bitch!") as shown in a new documentary called "Mike Wallace Is Here."

"Mike Wallace is here is the four most-dreaded words in the English language back then," said Israeli-born filmmaker Avi Belkin. "Back then you used to say, if you hear those words, you know you're gonna have a bad day."

But at 38, Belkin is too young to have seen many of Wallace's groundbreaking interviews when they first aired, like one with Watergate figure John Ehrlichman:

Wallace: "Secret slush funds. Laundering money in Mexico. Payoffs to silence witnesses. Perjury. Conspiracy to obstruct justice. All of this by the law-and-order administration of Richard Nixon."
Erhlichman: (long, long pause) "Is there a question in there somewhere?

It was, Belkin said, "The best question that Mike ever asked, which is not a question."

Correspondent Rita Braver asked, "What was it about Mike Wallace that captivated you?

"Mike was, in a way, the change," he replied. "Before Mike, news was very objective, was very straight-on. Mike had charisma like a star, like an actor. He came from the acting world.  He came from performance."

Indeed, Wallace started out as an advertising pitchman, an actor, and also as a host of early interview shows.

He was always obsessed with his career. He once stated, "I was always more interested in my work than in my family."

Braver asked Mike Wallace's son, Chris Wallace, now anchor of "Fox News Sunday," "Were you aware of that as you were growing up?"

"Sure," he said. "He wasn't there."

"When did your dad start being more of an involved father for you?"

"When my brother died," said Chris. "I was around 14."

In the summer of 1962, Peter Wallace, then a student at Yale, was hiking in Greece when he disappeared.

As Mike Wallace recalled, "We went over and found him. He had fallen off a cliff. I ... he ... you know, what do you say? He was a glorious young man."

In a Barbara Walters interview, Wallace was asked, "Do you ever get over that?"

"I mean there's always that, the memory of it. I mean, Peter was a, just a ..."

"It changed your life, didn't it?" asked Walters.

Wallace nodded yes.

After Peter's burial in Greece, Mike Wallace set out to change his life, becoming a better father to Chris, and giving up his lucrative commercial work on TV. "It was honest work, but I was not especially proud of it," he said.

He took a job as a CBS News correspondent.

Belkin said, "When Mike started doing news, he was looked down upon. Because he didn't come from Harvard, he didn't come from a background of journalism. He had a chip on his shoulder throughout his career because of that."

Then, in 1968 producer Don Hewitt recruited Wallace and Harry Reasoner to launch a new kind of television news program, "60 Minutes," where Wallace became master of the "ambush interview."

There was no question he wouldn't ask. To mobster (and later U.S. government witness) Jimmy Fratianno, Wallace asked, "How many people did you kill?"

"Five. But I don't think I can kill an innocent person," Fratianno replied.

Wallace described himself as "nosy and insistent. And not to be pushed aside."

Chris Wallace cherishes the old-fashioned contact list his late father used to track down sources. "You know, I don't think there was ever anybody who was any better than him on TV and in interviews, but he was first and foremost a great journalist," said Chris.

Chris Wallace on Mike Wallace stealing interviews

And gradually "60 Minutes" became one of America's top TV shows.

Braver asked, "As it started to take off, what was the family reaction?"

"Complete disbelief!" said Chris. "It was fun, it was exciting. He was tickled by it. But we were all really surprised that it happened."

But in 1982, Mike Wallace's world came crashing down.

After he interviewed retired Army General William Westmoreland, Westmoreland  filed a lawsuit against CBS, charging in federal court that he was libeled in a CBS News documentary about enemy troop strength reports during the Vietnam War, by the man he called "the unscrupulous and arrogant Mike Wallace."

Braver asked, "Mike took that personally and seriously and felt that his whole body of work was under attack."

"It hit him in his most sensitive core of his existence," Belkin said, "[and] caused him to feel like he's a fraud, and that spiraled him down into depression."

A depression so severe, Wallace revealed to his "60 Minutes" colleague Morley Safer that it drove him over the edge.

When Safer asked if he'd ever tried to commit suicide, Wallace replied, "I've never said this before: yeah, I tried. I wrote a note, and Mary found it."

In the end, Westmoreland dropped his lawsuit, and Wallace would charge back into his work for "60 Minutes," interviewing some of the most important figures of his time, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He sparred with stars like Shirley MacLaine, but he always managed to have fun, even at his own expense, as with comedian and director Mel Brooks:

Brooks: "Is that a hundred dollar watch?  Let me see that watch."
Wallace: "It's about a $40 watch."
Brooks: "It's a beautiful watch."
Wallace:  "Isnt it?"
Brooks: "Yeah, I love that."
Wallace: "It's a $40 watch."
Brooks: "Really?"
Wallace:  "Yes, lights up in the dark."
Brooks: "What a cheap son-of-a bitch you are!"

Mike Wallace retired in 2006 at age 88. He died six years later, yet getting to see his son Chris become a big success.

Braver asked Chris, "Was it hard to be Mike Wallace's son in journalism, or did it end up opening a lot of doors for you?"

"Yes is the answer to the question," Chris laughed, "and when I became a young reporter, occasionally people would say, 'Hey, Mike' when they meant Chris, and that used to sting. It still happens occasionally today, but I love it, because it says to me people remember him."

GALLERY: Remembering Mike Wallace, 1918-2012

"Mike Wallace Is Here" opens in theaters July 26, To watch a trailer click on the video player below.

Mike Wallace Is Here - Official Trailer by Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing on YouTube

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Story produced by Jay Kernis.