Robert E. Vitarelli, who as director of the “CBS Evening News” and Sunday morning’s “Face the Nation” was an unseen yet indispensable influence on television news for decades, died July 30 at a hospice center in the Villages, Fla. He was 86.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son, Chip Vitarelli.
“Vit” — as he was known among colleagues — rose from the mail room in the CBS office in New York to be a defining presence at the network’s Washington bureau from 1963 until his retirement in 1992.
He directed the “Evening News” with anchormen Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, as well as “Face the Nation” with moderator George Herman. For periods he also directed programs including the overnight newscast “Nightwatch,” “CBS This Morning” and the “Point-Counterpoint” debate segment on “60 Minutes.”
He oversaw coverage of presidential inaugurations, the 1961 Mercury flight that made Alan B. Shepard Jr. the first American to enter space, and the funerals of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y), both in 1968.
Mr. Vitarelli traveled widely for his work, including to Berlin when President John F. Kennedy visited the divided city months before his death, and to China during President Richard M. Nixon’s historic trip to the Communist nation in 1972. During a “Face the Nation” visit to Saigon amid the Vietnam War, a bomb exploded at Mr. Vitarelli’s hotel shortly before he and his party arrived.
“If the bomb had gone off two hours later we would have all been unpacking” inside the hotel, rather than at a safe distance from the site, he said in newsman Bob Schieffer’s book “Face the Nation,” about the program of the same title.
Mr. Vitarelli’s most taxing assignment, he said, came during his tenure at “CBS Evening News,” as the Watergate scandal unfolded, leading to Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
“For a year and a half, we’d have the whole damn show and then an hour special right after that,” Mr. Vitarelli recalled in CBS News political correspondent Roger Mudd’s book “The Place to Be.”
For the past two decades, Mr. Vitarelli was director of “The Kalb Report,” a public-affairs program filmed at the National Press Club in Washington and moderated by veteran CBS and NBC newsman Marvin Kalb.
“He was a director who understood that his job was not to look good,” Kalb said in an interview. “His job was to make the anchorman look good and to work with a writer . . . to enhance the product of the piece. Vit had from the very beginning . . . an instinct which was highly professional.”
Robert Edward Vitarelli was born in New York City on Nov. 12, 1930. He grew up in Pittsburgh, where his father ran a photography studio. An uncle was a director with the Walt Disney studio in Hollywood.
Mr. Vitarelli studied communications at the University of Pittsburgh — later completing a degree at the University of Alabama — before joining CBS in 1953. His honors included a Directors Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award.
Mr. Vitarelli resided for many years in Potomac, Md., and retired to Florida in 2013.
His first marriage, to Carol Funkhouser, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 50 years, the former Carol Miller, of the Villages; a son from his second marriage, Chip Vitarelli of Alameda, Calif.; a brother; and two grandchildren.