From an early career as an actor, cigarette pitchman and game-show host, he transitioned to what he called a more substantial career in hard news. “60 Minutes” made him rich, famous and one of the most commanding and imitated fixtures of TV journalism for more than two generations.
Mr. Wallace, 93, died April 7 at an assisted living facility in New Canaan, Conn., CBS News announced. He had a history of heart ailments, including a triple bypass operation in 2008.
Mr. Wallace developed a compelling persona that seamlessly blended country club locker-room bonhomie with the prosecutorial zeal of Torquemada. With his theatrical baritone, he pitched softball questions that could take a sudden detour into an uncomfortable line of questioning meant to sniff out misdeeds or fun gossip.
He became known as one the most skilled interviewers of the powerful, famous and elusive — world leaders, Hollywood celebrities, controversial newsmakers, notorious criminals and the hinkiest scam artists. He was a pioneer of the surprise or “ambush” interview, a technique intended to shock its targets into spilling information they might not reveal in a scheduled interview.
In short, he helped invent magazine-style television, which merged elements of news and entertainment in a powerful and immensely profitable way that kept CBS the most formidable of network-news providers for years and “60 Minutes” one of the most trusted of news programs.
Its weekly viewership reached 40 million at the peak of network TV audiences in the early 1980s. It spawned many imitators and, like Mr. Wallace, won the top honors of the profession.
Television historian Ron Simon said Mr. Wallace’s ability to remain engaging while asking aggressive questions was crucial to his success as an investigative reporter.
“He paved the way for how investigative journalism is done on television,” said Simon, a curator at the Paley Center for Media, a New York-based museum of radio and television. “He created a persona that worked for many decades and was compelling to viewers, who identified with him and trusted him as someone representing their interests.”
When mapping out an interview, Mr. Wallace told Time magazine he organized his questions by ambition, motivation, greed, joy and defeat, and said this established a “chemistry of confidentiality” that showed his guests “I cared enough to read and look at and worry about the questions.”
Among Mr. Wallace’s memorable exchanges was a 1979 interview with Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini shortly after his followers seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage.
“Imam,” Mr. Wallace began, “President Sadat of Egypt . . . says that what you are doing now is, quote, ‘a disgrace to Islam.’ And he calls you, imam, forgive me, his words, not mine, ‘a lunatic.’ “