Mike Wallace didn’t just interview people. The 60 Minutes host cross-examined his subjects, and sometimes eviscerated them live on-air. He’d break down interviewees with in-depth research, an unblinking stare, and startlingly blunt questions. When Wallace sat down with Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, he asked the supreme leader what he thought about being called “a lunatic” by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. “I figured, what was he going to do, take me as a hostage?” Wallace later said. The ayatollah calmly responded that Sadat was a heretic, and predicted his 1981 assassination. “There is one thing that Mike can do better than anybody else,” said Wallace’s late colleague Harry Reasoner. “With an angelic smile, he can ask a question that would get anyone else smashed in the face.”
Myron Leon Wallace was born in the Boston suburb of Brookline to Russian Jews who changed their last name, Wallik, on arrival in the U.S. After graduating from the University of Michigan, he went into local radio, said The New York Times, adopting “Mike” as his broadcast name. He progressed to local television after World War II, and in 1956 began working with producer Ted Yates on Night Beat—a talk show with a set so spartan that it “resembled a police interrogation room,” said The Washington Post. Wallace honed his tough interview techniques on the program, throwing questions about sex, religion, and murder at guests. He famously provoked mobster Mickey Cohen into saying, “I have killed no men that, in the first place, didn’t deserve killing.”
“Because of friction with ABC executives,” Wallace left the show in 1958 and returned to local television, said the Los Angeles Times. He hosted a New York current affairs program and appeared in commercials for Parliament cigarettes. But after the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter—an aspiring reporter—in 1962, Wallace vowed to devote himself to serious journalism. He did a “short stint reporting from Vietnam and took a sock in the jaw while covering the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago,” said the Associated Press.
Then came 60 Minutes, for which Wallace was hired at its inception, in 1968. The pioneering CBS “newsmagazine” featured three substantial pieces of about 15 minutes each—a near eternity on TV at the time. The show wasn’t a hit when it debuted, but by 1978 it had become one of the top 10 most watched programs, a position it held for 23 seasons. The highlights were many. In 1973, amid the escalating Watergate scandal, Wallace grilled Nixon aide John Ehrlichman and read out a long list of alleged crimes, including money laundering and obstructing justice. “All of this,” Wallace noted, “by the law-and-order administration of Richard Nixon.” The flustered Ehrlichman could only respond, “Is there a question in there somewhere?”
“There were also low moments,” said USA Today. A 1982 report on allegations that the U.S. military had deliberately underestimated enemy troop numbers during the Vietnam War led retired Gen. William Westmoreland to file a $120 million libel suit against the journalist. Wallace sank into depression and tried to kill himself with sleeping pills before Westmoreland and CBS settled, in 1985. Wallace recovered, and continued working for 60 Minutes until 2008. There was only one person he regretted not grilling during his 40 years with the show: Pope John Paul II. “I wanted to talk to him not just about being the pope, but about other things—about acting, about politics, about celibacy,” he said. “I wanted to talk to him as a man.”