Mike Wallace had a glorious career at CBS, racking up 21 Emmy awards and an endless reel of great interviewing moments. And to think that this fantastic career came very close to not happening at all.
A turning point in Wallace’s life came in 1962. That’s when his son, Peter, died on a trip in Greece at the age of 19. According to Gary Paul Gates’s 1978 book Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News , the terrible event — Peter had fallen during a hiking expedition — prompted Wallace to re-evaluate himself. At that point, he was drawing big bucks serving as a pitchman for Parliament cigarettes and performing in various unserious TV roles. Gates:
His huge income notwithstanding, did he really want to continue hustling viewers into buying Parliaments and laughing it up on talk and game shows? The answer, he decided, was no.
Just weeks after his son died, Wallace went into serious job-search mode. He wrote to the three network news operations, according to Gates, and got rejections:
As far as [CBS News President] Dick Salant and his counterparts were concerned, Wallace was damaged goods; they wanted no part of him. After a long and depressing winter of rejection in New York, he decided, in March 1963, to accept an offer as anchorman on a local news show at KTLA in Los Angeles. In the meantime, to underscore the new leaf he was turning over, Wallace told the Parliament people that he was willing to buy up his commercials to keep them off the air.
Salant was impressed with this “desire for redemption,” as Gates puts it. He signed Wallace on as a CBS News guy.
In an interview, Gates tells me that he later asked Salant whether hiring Wallace was the best decision he’d ever made. Salant replied, “Picking Cronkite to anchor the evening news was a close first.”