Don Hewitt is a perfect Don Hewitt stereotype. He lives up to every preconception you might have of a high-powered neurotic television producer. He's nervous, he's worried, he's feisty, he's loud, he's pugnacious, he's spleeny. He has the attention span of a hummingbird.
He talks and acts like a guy who's auditioning for his first job in television. But he's not. For 17 years, he has been executive producer of "60 Minutes," which started as a hare-brained scheme (of his) and has become an American institution. The latest edition, Sunday night, was seen in more than 22 million American homes and ranked fourth in the Nielsen top 10 for the week. It usually does. Don Hewitt worries that next week it might rank only fifth.
"I have some kind of a talent for drawing a crowd to watch other people's commercials," Don Hewitt says self-effacingly.
Last night, Don Hewitt became the third recipient of the Sol Taishoff Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism at a big banquet at the Sheraton Washington Hotel. He responded with a scrappy speech about reforming political coverage on TV. His new book, "Minute by Minute," a chatty anecdotal history of "60 Minutes" and his rowdy career in TV news (he once, legendarily, proposed to newscaster Douglas Edwards that he learn Braille so that he could look into the camera and give the news in pre-TelePrompTer days), is a socko best seller, though it could never sell enough copies to make Don Hewitt happy.
"It's a good book to take to the bathroom," he says. He always refers to "60 Minutes" as merely "the story of five reporters" and their adventures. For America, though, it is practically a religious ritual. In a recent interview with Aljean Harmetz, new Walt Disney Chairman Michael D. Eisner, who's gone up against "60 Minutes" with ABC's "The Disney Sunday Movie," gave an offhand but perceptive analysis of the great "60 Minutes" success. He said that "people feel after a week of frivolousness" they "come to '60 Minutes' to be cleansed."
"This whole book is about a frustrated Hildy Johnson, right?" Hewitt asks rhetorically, referring to the famous maverick reporter in "The Front Page." Hewitt says that's him all over, just a simple scribe in a battered hat. "That's where I'd like to be: in a newspaper's city room. I like the sound of printing presses. It really revs me up! I really mean it! I'm serious! That's what really turns me on!"
He doesn't mean it. He's not serious. He just thinks he is. He really hasn't quite made up his mind what he wants to do with his life yet. At 63, Don Hewitt is still a brash bratty upstart. "Any sense of him being 'old guard' is ridiculous," says Howard Stringer, CBS News executive vice president. "He's the youngest executive producer here."
"He's had so much to do with the nuts and bolts of news broadcasting. He's just done it all," says star correspondent Mike Wallace, who was there with Hewitt at the creation of "60 Minutes." They often eat lunch together at the CBS News cafeteria, across the street from the "60 Minutes" offices on West 57th Street in Manhattan. They call the cafeteria "The Bay of Pigs." They are old friends.
"Don still has the same kind of peculiar enthusiasm he's always had," Wallace says. "There were a couple of years there when his interest seemed to be waning, but now it's back in full force. What really animates the show is the Hewitt temperament."
Hewitt keeps rejuvenating himself, and he rejuvenates the show in the process. He says of himself and his CBS bosses, "I'm not unhappy. Professionally, they leave me alone." But he has become discontented recently with his share of the enormously profitable "60 Minutes" pie. He has estimated CBS makes $75 million a year on "60 Minutes" alone. He doesn't understand why he personally hasn't reaped a greater reward.
Of course, his annual reported salary is $2 million, a figure he does not dispute. "I ain't going to bandy with you. I ain't poor," he says, looking momentarily wily. Friends at CBS say the problem is Hewitt hangs out in the Hamptons with his pal, CBS cofounder and former chairman William S. Paley, and with other captains of industry, and $2 million starts looking like small potatoes in this sea of swank foie gras.
So Hewitt's latest scheme is for old "60 Minutes" shows to be syndicated, with him participating in the profits, to the tune of $10 million or more a year. Asked if there are plans to syndicate the show, Hewitt says, "I would hope so. And I would like a piece of it. Wouldn't you? Does that seem unreasonable?
"I think it would work very well as a syndicated show, with somebody updating it, filling in the holes. Who knows what would work in syndication? I thought 'Dallas' would work in syndication, and it doesn't." If there are any plans to syndicate "60 Minutes," however, CBS News insiders say they are on hold.
That's all right. Hewitt has other schemes. One of them surfaced late last year, when Hewitt suddenly proposed, quite publicly, that CBS sell its vaunted news division to him and such colleagues as Dan Rather and Diane Sawyer, let them run it, and sell news programming back to the network. One element of the plan was that Hewitt would install a satellite dish on the roof of Potamkin's Garage, a Cadillac dealership across the street from his office.
The point of this proposal was to let CBS corporate management know that Hewitt and others were dissatisifed with the corporate chain of command and poor communications from top brass to them. And that they felt insufficiently appreciated. In the wake of the proposal, CBS News President Edward M. Joyce was replaced with former CBS News president Van Gordon Sauter. Joyce left the company after 22 years last week.
"I never was involved in any get-Ed-Joyce or get-Van-Sauter thing, as I kept reading," Hewitt says now. "It wasn't true. I went in with two messages. One, that I thought there were too many layers of management between CBS News and the top and, two, I said I thought that the president of CBS News ought to be somebody who sees that as the end of his career. He has just been given the biggest job in broadcast journalism and there ain't nothing else, and don't look around this company, 'cause you don't go anywhere from here, you have gotten to the top of the tree and if you're good you can keep it forever, and if you're bad, you're out, but there's no other jobs around for you . . . "
He goes on in this vein for some time. It is pointed out to him that Sauter, considered prime CBS corporate material by many, isn't likely to see the news division presidency as the summit of his life. Hewitt smiles Cheshire-cattily and folds his arms. Yes, he knows that. As it happens, the man most people expect to become news president eventually is Stringer.
Anyway, Hewitt has calmed down about the news division for now. He is still a bit testy, however, on the topic of "West 57th," the other CBS magazine show (though its producer, Andrew Lack, doesn't like it to be called a magazine show) that, after a brief run last summer, returns to the air in April. Hewitt was one of the first people at CBS shown the "West 57th" pilot. He hated it. Then he ran around insisting he had never seen it. Then he told somebody he didn't like it, and that got printed.
Then he went on the Phil Donahue show and said it was wrong of him to have said he didn't like it. What he really didn't like, apparently, was all the talk about how "West 57th" was the new "60 Minutes" when Hewitt thinks, rightly, of "60 Minutes" as the new "60 Minutes." Now come on, Don, what was going on there?
"I always thought the world of Andy Lack. I always thought the world of 'West 57th Street,' " says Hewitt, getting the show's name a little wrong. In fact -- as Mike Wallace might say on "60 Minutes" -- Hewitt became incensed about a rumor that Lack had it written into his contract that he was to be the next executive producer of "60 Minutes." There was, apparently, no such clause.
Things were exacerbated a bit by the fact that "60 Minutes" was coming off a dud year. Hewitt admits that now. "Mike was away," he says -- testifying in the libel trial brought against CBS News by retired Army general William C. Westmoreland over a documentary on Vietnam. "Mike was all involved in the Westmoreland trial. Diane was just starting; we were trying to find out how to fit her into this thing. We didn't have Mike. I think our gaze was deflected by the lawsuit, although it had nothing to do with '60 Minutes.' We didn't have a good year. We knew that.
"Mike's the spark plug. Mike drives the place. My big fear was always that Mike Wallace would turn out to be a caricature of himself. I don't worry about that anymore because Geraldo Rivera became a caricature of Mike. We never ambushed anybody who didn't know we were waiting outside."
"60 Minutes," which became famous for its aggressive confrontational approach, has been sued many times itself, but it virtually always wins. Only last month it was completely vindicated in a decade-old suit brought by Col. Anthony Herbert, who had claimed "60 Minutes" libeled him in a 1973 report. A federal appeals court in Manhattan threw his $44 million suit out the window in a unanimous decision.
Hewitt says what ticked him off during the "West 57th" brouhaha was talk about how "60 Minutes" was a haven for old-timers whereas "West 57th" had the bubbly zing of the Pepsi generation. "Somebody around CBS News, and I don't know who, was orchestrating this 'over-the-hill' campaign," Hewitt says. " '60 Minutes' are yesterday's people, they're not with it, they don't know anything about video. And it didn't really disturb me so much that somebody was doing it. What disturbed me was that nobody up on top was saying, 'Cut it out.'
"I mean, the network rests on this show. This is the perennial, in the top three or four every year, year after year after year. Why is it that this old crowd, this over-the-hill crowd, this Lavender Hill Mob, why is it that they are still CBS' top-rated broadcast? These guys have been on the air for 17 years and there probably is no more important job for the management of CBS News than to keep the '60 Minutes' team happy. When we're happy, we make the network happy.
"And I couldn't figure out why somebody wasn't putting a stop to this BS. 'Cause it isn't true. I mean, we've got more energy -- we'll take on any kid in the house. That's how I got snookered into saying some things that, one, I shouldn't have said and, two, I didn't really believe. But I said 'em. And it was bush league. 'Cause, you know, when you're as big as we are, you don't bully the new kid on the block. I did it, and I'm ashamed of it."
WHAT A GUY! No wonder they love him at "60 Minutes." Wallace says staff turnover on the show is infinitesimal, because it's such a happy shop. Although there have been fiery little moments. Like the time Andy Rooney, the Oscar-the-Grouch of "60 Minutes," showed up at Hewitt's office with a camera crew and tried to push his way in the way Wallace and Dan Rather and other "60 Minutes" reporters used to do at the offices of flimflammers and miscreants. Hewitt got mad and slammed the door in Rooney's face.
"I knew he was coming and I closed the door," Hewitt says with decorous studied calm (Ooo boy, I'll bet he'd love to blow up right now! I don't think he knew I knew about the notorious Rooney incident!). "I didn't get angry," Hewitt insists (Yeah right.) "I just thought it was funny." (Surrrre you did). "But, you know, if you don't slam the door on Andy Rooney, he doesn't have a piece. If I let him in, what's he got?"
Hmmm. Interesting point there, Don. He insists "60 Minutes" is generally a felicitous place to work because neither he nor his colleagues are "difficult people." But surely Rooney is difficult. "Andy? Yeah, sure. Listen, show me somebody with no temperament, I'll show you somebody with no talent.
"Andy comes across the street -- he won't live with us because I think he's kind of ashamed of us -- and he's got a tape under his arm, he comes with his tape editor and he kind of dares you to cut anything out of his piece. And you always feel, 'If I cut that piece, that guy's gonna do a piece about me, about what a nerd I am.' And I would rather be interviewed by Mike Wallace than have Andy Rooney do an essay about me. One you come out intact; the other one, you're dead."
That's one of the things Hewitt kept saying on his book-plugging tour. That he would rather have Mike than Andy do a piece about him, and so on. He also kept saying that he did not add Diane Sawyer to the show to give it youth and sex appeal. He kept saying, "I would have hired her if her name was Tom Sawyer," heh heh.
One of the many arts that Don Hewitt has mastered completely is the art of judicious and expeditious bull throwing.
Hewitt is told that writing a career-spanning book like his might be taken as a valedictory sort of move, that it might indicate he is getting ready to retire from "60 Minutes." No, he isn't. "No no no no no," in fact, he isn't. "I'm not going anywhere. You couldn't get me out of here with dynamite. I asked them whether they wanted me to stay for five more years after my retirement age. They said no, they'd like me to stay for 10. That's all right with me. I like it here."
As he sits in a chair and talks, Don Hewitt is still more or less perpetually in motion. He seems frustrated by the fact that he cannot get up and run around the room. He has the adrenaline, the brass, the chutzpah of a dozen normal men. He has the TV version of the right stuff. He doesn't look, feel or act his age. "Naw. I'd lick any kid in the house," he says again. "So will Mike. Mike, for Chrissake, you know what Mike's last assignment is going to be? My funeral! Mike Wallace is going to cover my funeral!"
Thirty-five years ago, Don Hewitt sat next to Edward R. Murrow in the "See It Now" control room as Murrow spoke to viewers, live, on the air, and asked Hewitt to punch up an amazing sight: the Atlantic Ocean on one monitor, the Pacific on another. It was the first time, Murrow told viewers, that a person could sit in his home and see both oceans at once. "It was a video trick," Hewitt scoffs now.
He's been there through it all, and no matter how glib or facile or prickly he might sound, this is one of the great men of the air. Asked if he isn't in fact a habitual, dedicated troublemaker, Hewitt smiles guiltily and says, "A gadfly. A gadfly." Smiles again. "I mean, somebody's got to make people itch a little." If there were either no television or no Don Hewitt, one would have invented the other.