CBS’s 60 Minutes devoted its entire hour last Sunday night to remembering Mike Wallace, the grand inquistor of television news who had died the previous weekend at the age of 93. It was a fond farewell that did not soft-peddle the reality that Wallace could be both a pussycat and a bear.
I have my own little piece of Wallace lore. On my first of what turned out to be many, many summer TV critics’ tours to Los Angeles, CBS flew Wallace out to do meet-and-greets. This was 1973, when the critic corps was still relatively small, so instead of mass press conferences there were small coffee klatch sessions that were almost cozy. Nobody asked hard questions. Everybody just chatted, and the interviewee – whether it was Wallace or William “Cannon” Conrad or Sally Field – was mainly expected to tell good anecdotes.
Wallace was extremely convivial, telling “war stories” about cheats and liars he’s faced down and expounding on how he and his producers convinced these crooks to appear on camera. We all laughed a lot.
As the session was ending, I couldn’t resist approaching the most feared and famous journalist in America. I had on the TV beat for The Orlando Sentinel for less than six months. I had previously been a staff writer for the paper’s ambitious Sunday magazine, Florida, and one of the last pieces I had written for the mag was a long feature about the “leper colony” in Carville, Louisiana. I couldn’t wait to tell Wallace that Carville was a great story just waiting for him or Morley Safer.
“Mr. Wallace, Mr. Wallace,” I called to him. He turned toward me. “I just wanted to tell you I have a great story idea for you. It’s about….”
He cut me off with one of those annoyed “Oh, please” looks well known to 60 Minutes viewers. “Sure kid,” he said. “Everybody does.”
As he turned away, I was so stunned by his curt rebuff that that my deeply ingrained Southern manners and deference just disappeared. “Well, fuck you,” I blurted.
He turned sharply and looked at me – really looked at me for the first time. I gulped. “What’s the story?” he asked.
I told him, as succinctly as I could, about Carville. He nodded as I explained and then he said, “That is a good story, but it’s not a 60 Minutes story.” He went on to explain about conflict, finding the drama in a piece.
He thanked me for the suggestion, wished me luck with my writing, shook my hand.
Years later, when I was working for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, I lined up a phone interview with Wallace to talk about some history special he was narrating. The publicist had gotten me his home phone number. We talked about the special, 60 Minutes, even his struggle with depression. He was as candid as he was genial. As the interview was wrapping up, I mentioned the encounter described above.
Not surprisingly, given how many people he’d met in his professional life, he did not recall my outburst. But his behavior, he said, sounded like him, and he apologized.
No, I said, “I’m the one who should apologize for what I said. It was unprofessional, not to mention rude.”
“Trust me when I tell you, Noel,” he said. “You were not the first person who ever said that to me.”