Wallace had audacity to ask pointed questions

(CBS News) It's the stuff of legend, but it happens to be true. In his office at "60 Minutes," Mike Wallace kept an old newspaper ad he really loved. It read, "The four most dreaded words in the English language are 'Mike Wallace is here.'"

Over the weekend, CBS News got the news that it had long dreaded. Mike Wallace was gone. He died Saturday at the age of 93 after a long career of pointed questions.

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He had the audacity to ask questions that would start a fight a bar, and started the week for millions of Americans.

"I'm nosy and insistent," Wallace said in a 2008 interview with Steve Kroft.

Wallace grew up alongside broadcasting, announcing "The Green Hornet" on radio. And then on television, he also worked on talk shows, game shows and commercials.

But, it was in 1965, on a New York station, that Wallace discovered no one would throw a punch in a television studio - though some must have wanted to.

"I'm ready anytime you want to repeat the stupid question," an angry union member told Wallace.

He even interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt. "A good many people hated your husband," he asked the former first lady.

She nodded yes.

"They even hated you," he said.

"Yes, a great many do still!" she said laughing.

Wallace found his voice and style. But, the pivot point in his life came with the death of his son Peter, who fell in a hiking accident in Greece in 1962. Wallace wanted to do work that his son would be proud of.

In 1968, "60 Minutes" creator Don Hewitt was looking for audacity.

"Goddammit Don!" Wallace was captured on tape yelling during a fight with Hewitt.

It wasn't always a happy marriage between the two. In conflict, they created the most successful primetime television broadcast of all time.

He said things to Ayatollah Khomeini that would send an Iranian to prison for life.

"(President Sadat) calls you Iman, forgive me -- his words not mine -- a lunatic," Wallace told Khomeini.

Wallace was not shy about controversy, and on occasion controversy came to him. In 1982, Wallace was named in a libel suit by General William Westmoreland, the former commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Wallace has narrated a CBS Reports documentary that claimed Westmoreland and others lied about enemy troop strength. The suit was dropped, but listening to his work questioned in court sent Wallace into the first of three depressions.

He acknowledged this to CBS News correspondent Morley Safer. Safer asked Wallace if he ever tried to commit suicide.

"I've never said this before. Yeah, I tried," Wallace told Safer.

But, he was at the end, unbreakable.

It was 65 years from Wallace's first appearance on camera in a World War II film for the Navy to his last interview for "60 Minutes." At the age of 89, he interviewed baseball star Roger Clemens, who was fighting charges of steroid use.

"You think people are going to believe you?" Wallace asked Clemens unabashed.

He told correspondents at "60 Minutes" that it wasn't hard. "Just look for the truth," he said.

  • Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, "60 Minutes"