In his swaggering glory days as a “60 Minutes” star of stars, it was sometimes said that the mere mention of Mike Wallace’s name could strike fear in the hearts of resolute men and women.
Gen. William Westmoreland, who famously sued Wallace and the top-ranked CBS news program for libel after they aired a documentary asserting that enemy troop strength figures in the Vietnam War were manipulated, called him “unscrupulous and arrogant.” (The case was abruptly dropped after a long trial.) Barbra Streisand pegged him as a “son of a b----.” Actor Kirk Douglas said he’d heard that Wallace was a “pretty rough boy.”
The meticulously prepared, relentlessly probing truth-seeker delivered countless thunderclap exposés and practically patented the ambush interview, pouncing on corrupt politicians and shady businessmen to demand answers with his camera crew trailing behind. He faced down tyrants and despots. He made people cry.
He got the real story.
“Don’t confuse anger and hostility with an insistence on getting to the bottom line — to the fact,” Wallace said while interviewing TV host Larry King, who was known for a softer approach.
Seven years after Wallace’s death at 93, his life and career as one of America’s most accomplished and celebrated journalists are being examined in the new documentary, “Mike Wallace Is Here,” that will be featured this weekend at the AFI Docs festival before opening in Washington on Aug. 2. The film, by Los Angeles-based documentarian Avi Belkin, raises chewy questions about the legendary newsman’s legacy and whether he played a role in sowing the seeds of today’s untrammeled information landscape.
“In a way, he made the blueprint of what journalism is today,” Belkin said in an interview. “Mike was, in a way, a revolution. The charisma, the performance — he brought them into the game.”
Belkin’s film, by design, includes numerous clips of Wallace — the searing questioner — being interviewed by everyone from his “60 Minutes” colleagues to Barbara Walters.
“Everybody wanted to do a Mike Wallace interview with Mike Wallace,” Belkin said.
So he did — posthumously.
“I wanted to do a Mike Wallace interview with Mike Wallace, but Mike was dead, obviously,” he said. “So I tried to interview him through the archives.”
Belkin built his film entirely using archival footage, rather than conducting live interviews. (He is the first outside filmmaker to be granted full access, including outtakes and raw footage, to CBS and “60 Minutes” archives, the network said.)
Belkin’s film opens with an arresting on-air conversation between Wallace and then-Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly, the archetype of the current era’s caustic, hyperpartisan television personality. A sly smile crosses Wallace’s face as he shows clips of O’Reilly berating guests on his top-ranked show, telling them to “shut up” and calling one guest a “coward.” The expression on Wallace’s face seems to say, “I gotcha!”
“That’s not an interview. That’s a lecture,” Wallace says, staring unflinchingly at O’Reilly. “You say that you’re a journalist. I say that you’re an op-ed columnist, which is different.”
But O’Reilly, who said he grew up watching Wallace, has a ready comeback.
“You’re the driving force behind my career,” the Fox superstar says, staring right back at Wallace. “I always tell everybody: ‘You got a problem with me? He’s responsible.’ ”
Asked about the clip, Belkin said he considers Wallace an influence on O’Reilly, “but I don’t think he created him.”
Wallace’s broadcast career stretched so long that some viewers were born and reached middle age never knowing a time when he wasn’t on the air. He began appearing on television in the late 1940s, debuted on “60 Minutes” in 1968, and was still filing occasional stories for the news magazine program until 2008, piling up Emmys and winning a Gerald R. Loeb Award, one of journalism’s most prestigious honors, in 1999 for an investigation of the international pharmaceutical industry.
The imposing figure of Wallace on the screen, though, belied an entirely human figure, with vulnerabilities and insecurities, off the screen. Wallace, who grew up in Brookline, Mass., talks of dreading sunny days as an adolescent because his acne-scarred face would be more visible.
“I was exposed to all my painful ugliness,” Wallace says in the documentary.
He also speaks frankly about his battles with depression, including a suicide attempt that he denied for years — during an era when mental-health issues were widely stigmatized — before finally acknowledging it in an interview with longtime “60 Minutes” colleague Morley Safer.
“You don’t want to eat. You find it difficult to sleep,” Wallace says. “I would ask a question, and I couldn’t hear or understand the answer.”
And he recounts the pain caused by the death of his 19-year-old son Peter, who’d gone missing while on a 1962 trip in Greece and died while hiking in the mountains. In the film, Wallace is shown in grainy footage riding on a donkey that he used to climb the mountain where his son was last seen. (His son Chris Wallace is the host of “Fox News Sunday” and himself a widely respected interviewer.)
Wallace’s journalistic trajectory was unconventional. He was an actor, game show host and television pitchman for products such as Parliament cigarettes. But he seemed to find his calling as a piercing interviewer when he hosted a program called “Night Beat” in the 1950s. In Belkin’s film, Wallace appears on the program asking pointed questions through trails of cigarette smoke.
“I think at some point in Mike’s life, he invented a guy named Mike Wallace,” Safer, who died in 2016, says in a clip included in the documentary.
In his early days at CBS, Wallace recalled getting a chilly reception from a staff that had set the standard for journalistic excellence and integrity. His new compatriots were less than cordial, he says, and they wondered: “ ‘Who needs this pitchman for Philip Morris cigarettes?’ I was tainted and they were pure.”
As a well-sourced correspondent, Wallace was making inroads covering Richard M. Nixon’s late-1960s presidential campaign, and he says in the film that Nixon wanted him to join the election team as press secretary. Instead, he joined forces with Don Hewitt, who created “60 Minutes,” and eventually became one of the most recognized faces in American journalism.
In Belkin’s film, viewers see Wallace sitting on the floor cross-legged to interview the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini during the late-1970s hostage crisis. When one of Khomeini’s aides interrupts the interview, and asks Wallace to submit a batch of questions to be translated and then answered all at once, Wallace balks and delivers a lesson in journalistic integrity.
“Unless I know what he is saying it will not make sense,” Wallace says. “I must understand as we go, otherwise it is not an interview.”
The newsman stood his ground, and the “supreme leader” backed down.
But the show’s success was sniffed at by some top journalists. Belkin’s documentary unearths a remarkable exchange between Wallace and Frederick Taylor, the high-powered Wall Street Journal editor. Asked during a roundtable TV program in the 1980s whether he thought what Wallace did was “good journalism,” Taylor laughed.
“I think it’s marvelous drama and has very little to do with journalism,” Taylor said. “I think it’s show business.”
As “60 Minutes” soared to the top of the ratings, imitators followed, shows with more of a tabloid sensibility, such as “Hard Copy,” “Inside Edition” and “A Current Affair.” Wallace lamented in one interview that there were too many magazine shows, but also pointed out that audiences had a thirst for more and more information.
In the clips, though, Wallace looks more at home asking the questions than answering them. His generation’s foremost journalistic inquisitor struggled to answer how he would want to be remembered.
“The fella who did — the fella who investigated, who muckraked, who asked some tough questions and who, aw, bulls---, aw, come on,” Wallace says. “It’s a lousy question.”