TV News Giant Don Hewitt Dies At 86

CBS News Legend And "60 Minutes" Creator's Career Spanned 60 Years

Donald Shepard Hewitt was born Dec. 14, 1922 in New York City and grew up in the suburb of New Rochelle, N.Y. During high school there, he worked at the town's weekly newspaper, covering his school, and was also a track star. His running earned him a scholarship to New York University. After a year, he dropped out of NYU to pursue his dream to be a reporter and landed a job as copy boy at the New York Herald Tribune. When the U.S. entered World War II in 1942, Hewitt joined the Merchant Marine, which made him a war correspondent at the age of 20 and the youngest posted to Gen. Eisenhower's London headquarters. He covered the D-day invasion and the war in the North Atlantic and the Pacific. He returned in 1946 to become, briefly, night editor for the Associated Press in Memphis, and then editor of the Pelham (N.Y.) Sun, before becoming an editor for Acme News Pictures, the photo division of the wire service United Press.

His picture experience prompted a friend in 1948 to tell him about television, where CBS News had a job opening. "Whatavision?" was his response to the call, he often told reporters years later.

But he took the job as associate director, even though most journalists regarded the fledgling medium as a fad. He remarked later that after seeing the cameras and lights at CBS News, he felt "like Dorothy in the Emerald City."

Hewitt's pluck and personality became legend as he quickly rose in the news division, becoming director and producer of "CBS TV News" in 1949, as well as just about every other program CBS News put on the air. He began inventing the wheel, coming up with the techniques he needed to improve the infant broadcasts - even suggesting anchor Douglas Edwards learn Braille to read the news on air before finally settling on cue cards. Hewitt contributed significant ideas to covering the first televised political conventions in Philadelphia in 1948 and Chicago in 1952. In Chicago, he noticed the pushpin letters on a diner's menu board and bought it to construct the first on-screen "supers," used to identify the various speakers at the convention. It was at that same convention that the news term "anchor" began to be associated with Walter Cronkite - the new star reporter CBS News executives wanted their convention coverage to revolve around.

Hewitt also directed and produced iconic events, such as the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth. It was the first same-day coverage of a foreign event and it was achieved by editing the film aboard a chartered flight home. In 1956, Hewitt and his cameraman arrived late and missed the opportunity to film the slowly sinking Andrea Doria, but sweet-talked a pilot to take them over the ship - just in time to be the only crew to film it as it dramatically disappeared below the water. He also produced and/or directed regular CBS News programs besides Edwards' nightly news, including Murrow's "See It Now" and "Person to Person," plus others, like "Omnibus," throughout the 1950s. In the 1960s he directed coverage of events like the early space launches and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hewitt's boldness in the highly competitive news business was legendary. He once became a deputy sheriff to get closer than his competition to the visiting Nikita Khrushchev. And in perhaps the most publicized incident, Hewitt found a lost copy of NBC's coverage playbook at the 1964 Republican convention and pocketed it with the intention of using it to scoop his competitors. He gave it back after an NBC producer, it is said, threatened to throw him out a hotel window. Hewitt's colorful style clashed with the staid nature of another CBS News legend, Fred Friendly, and led indirectly to Hewitt's creation of 60 Minutes.

Friendly was named president of CBS News in 1964 and, in December of that year, a few months after the NBC playbook incident, he removed Hewitt from his role as executive producer of the "CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite."

Despite the fancy title Friendly bestowed on him - Executive Producer of Live and Taped Documentaries - Hewitt knew he was off the front lines.

Exiled with time on his hands, Hewitt then slowly emerged with the idea for what would become the most successful television program in history. About a year later, he began showing anybody who would take the time the 60 Minutes pilot comprised of three hour-long documentaries cut down to 20 minutes each that he said would be a new news format, a magazine for television.

If there was an achievement he was as proud of as 60 Minutes, it was his Frank Sinatra documentary. Broadcast in 1965, it was the most intimate portrait of his life and art that Sinatra ever allowed. Hewitt said he got the reluctant entertainer to agree to it, even though he could not pay him any money, by baiting him with a challenge: Could he sit and answer questions from Cronkite - the same newsman American presidents had sat down with? Over the years, Hewitt periodically cut down the hour so it could be broadcast in the event of Sinatra's death. Instead, CBS broadcast the entire hour of "Sinatra: Living with the Legend" in May 1998 as a news special after the entertainer's death.

Hewitt wrote two books, Tell Me a Story: Fifty Years and 60 Minutes in Television (Public Affairs, 2001), and Minute by Minute (Random House, 1985), about 60 Minutes.

Hewitt won every major award numerous times and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1990. He was the recipient of many honorary degrees, among the most prestigious was the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Journalism from Harvard University he shared with the Washington Post's Bob Woodward in 1992. He also won the Paul White Award in 1987, the highest honor bestowed by the Radio and Television News Directors Association, and the President's Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Overseas Press Club in 1998. As executive producer, he shared in all of 60 Minutes' awards, including 13 Peabody Awards won by the broadcast during his tenure; he won two others, one awarded directly to him for his body of work in 1988 and shared another with CBS News in 1958. 60 Minutes won several Alfred I. DuPont/Columbia University's Awards, including the highest broadcast honor, the Gold Baton for him and the broadcast collective in 1987-88, scores of Emmy Awards - including a special Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 2003 and The Founder's Emmy in 1995. The Founder's Emmy citation reads, "Awarded to the creator of 60 Minutes for a body of work crossing geographic and cultural boundaries to touch our common humanity."

For the past several years, he had been involved in a variety of broadcast projects, mostly outside of CBS, including producing a primetime documentary about the Radio City Music Hall's annual Christmas show.

He is survived by his wife of 30 years, Marilyn Berger; two sons, Steven and Jeffrey and his wife Nancy; daughter Lisa Cassara and her husband, William; stepdaughter Jilian Childers Hewitt, adopted by Hewitt, who was the daughter of his second wife, Frankie (nee Teague) Hewitt by her first husband Bob Childers.; three grandchildren: Balin Hewitt, Connor and Jack Cassara. Frankie Hewitt and Hewitt's first wife, Mary Weaver, both predeceased him.

Funeral services will be private.