08.19.09

CBS' Bob Simon Remembers Don Hewitt

In the wake of 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt’s death at 86, CBS’ Bob Simon remembers working with the news pioneer who put personal stories first.

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When Don came to see me, it was usually to tell a joke. They were almost always off-color and usually pretty good. But whether they were good or not, he howled when he told them. And they all had a beginning, a middle, and an end. They were “stories,” which is what Don was all about. Telling and listening to stories.

I worked for Don before I met him. It was 1996, and the U.S. Air Force barracks had just been bombed in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. I was there doing news pieces and suddenly Don Hewitt was on the phone. He asked me if I would do a 60 Minutes story “for him.”

I was quite flabbergasted. The broadcast—and Don in particular—were mythological creatures to me. I said something articulate like “uh,” and Don asked me: “Can you interview some pilots?” I said: “Sure.” Don said “Just do that. The rest of the story will tell itself.”

And, in retrospect, that is exactly what happened. The soldiers were so outraged at the lack of Saudi security that the story had quite an impact. But Don wasn’t interested in the “issue.” Don didn’t like issues. He liked people.

The first piece I screened for Don here on the ninth floor, he told me to scrap the first two pages of my script.

I was based in Israel most of the time I worked for Don. Whenever I mentioned Israel, in any context, his reply was: “Israel? Israel is a small country. Do you know Teddy Kollek?”

Don’s screening room was a screaming room. I didn’t join the fray. I was too intimidated. The first piece I screened for Don here on the ninth floor, he told me to scrap the first two pages of my script. (He often said that my stories began on page 3.) He rearranged most of what I had done and ordered me to drop one of my main characters. I left the screening room devastated. Then Josh Howard, a senior producer, came up to me and said: “You don’t understand. That was a good screening. Don loves the story. Couldn’t you see that?”

No, I couldn’t. Nor could I understand what happened when I shot a very complicated story in South Africa with producer Michael Gavshon. It was so complicated, in fact, that we felt we needed someone to put it in perspective. So we interviewed an extremely articulate woman named Nomvula. When Don saw the piece, he said “It’s fine, just lose that November woman.” Don didn’t want analysts or observers. He wanted participants.

What amazed me perhaps more than anything else was Don’s lack of control over a story. Once he approved an idea, we would go off and research it, set it up, shoot it, script it, and edit it. Don didn’t want to know anything about that. (Nor did he want to know about the budget.) His participation began and ended when the lights went down in the screening room. That was all he was interested in: What would go on television. And whenever we thought we had a story nailed, Don would have another idea. And, invariably, he was right.

He gave us enough rope to do anything we wanted to do. And enough rope, of course, to hang ourselves.

Sometimes when a piece of mine was being screened, I noticed that Don had his eyes closed. Damn, I thought, he is dozing. But he wasn’t; he was listening. The pictures were secondary. It was the voices that mattered.

Don spoke of us—producers and correspondents—as being smarter than he was. On this, he was wrong.

Don Hewitt was pure energy, perpetual motion. It is very hard even to imagine that he won’t be moving anymore.

Bob Simon is a correspondent for 60 Minutes , where he has been contributing regularly since 1996. His work has appeared on nearly every CBS News broadcast and has won 23 Emmys. He is also the recipient of a Peabody Award and four Overseas Press Club Awards.