‘BIGGEST CAT’

05.01.12

Emotional Memorial for ‘60 Minutes’ Legend Mike Wallace

Mitt Romney, Donald Trump, Roger Ailes, and many more luminaries packed a service Tuesday for ‘60 Minutes’ icon Mike Wallace, who died April 7. Lloyd Grove reports on the moving, humor-filled eulogies.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, of all people, broke off from campaigning Tuesday morning to attend the memorial service for 60 Minutes legend Mike Wallace, who died April 7 at age 93. Romney, the subject of Wallace’s last 60 Minutes profile in 2007, sat, unannounced, amid a capacity crowd in the Time Warner Center’s Rose Hall.

The mourners, many of whom had known and worked with Wallace for decades, were as various as Fox News chairman Roger Ailes; Sony chairman Howard Stringer, a former president of CBS; chanteuse Barbara Cook, who sang the Artie Butler standard “Here’s to Life” after pointing out that Wallace once “pissed me off” with intrusive interview questions; and actress Attallah Shabazz, the eldest daughter of Malcolm X.

And, oh yes, Donald Trump, who marched down the aisle with wife Melania in tow.

“Mike knew everyone,” his former 60 Minutes colleague Steve Kroft marveled after an emotional, often hilarious two-hour service in which television’s grand inquisitor was remembered as a charming megalomaniac, scheming competitor, and sometimes petulant colleague whose ornery exterior concealed a soft-hearted center.

“A mixture of guile and gall,” said Kroft, who joined Morley Safer, CBS News chairman and 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager, and Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace, Mike’s son, in eulogizing the broadcasting star.

“Let’s be honest, because that’s he way he would want it,” the younger Wallace began his remarks. “At some point or other over the years … many of the people in this room were not speaking to my father. Maybe he poached one of your stories.”

“60 Minutes suddenly decided to do a profile of Chris Rock. Pretty soon my worst fear had been realized. My old man had stolen the interview.”

Fager noted that Wallace would have had “his breath taken away to see this place so full,” as well as eager to boast “that more people showed up at his memorial service than showed up at Hewitt’s”—a reference to 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt, who died in August 2009.

Along with the late Harry Reasoner and Hewitt, Mike Wallace was a founding partner of the celebrated CBS News program that was launched in 1968 and, after a rough start with a sporadic schedule, eventually reigned supreme at 7 p.m. Sunday as the most-watched show on network television. He was the last of a deified generation of CBS News luminaries that included Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, and Ed Bradley. In his remarks onstage, Kroft noted that Wallace urged him to join the dream team in the early 1990s.

“He was one of the persons most responsible for my coming to the show,” Kroft told the mourners. “But he offered no guidance when I arrived, nor did he show me any mercy.” Kroft recalled that 60 Minutes alum Dan Rather, then the anchor of The CBS Evening News (and a no-show at the memorial, having written a new book trashing his former employer), “took me aside [and said] ‘It’s a jungle over there. It’s filled with big cats, and all it takes is for one of them to give you a flick of a paw and you’ll be limping for six months.’”

Needless to say, “Mike was the biggest cat,” Kroft continued, noting Wallace’s outsize ego and addiction to the limelight. “Some of these traits that I describe would be unflattering and even reprehensible in most people, but strangely enough, they weren’t in Mike.”

Still, some in the audience gasped when Chris Wallace recounted his own “Mike Wallace moment” from the fall of 1997, when he was working for ABC’s Primetime magazine show and wrangled an interview with comedian Chris Rock. The younger Wallace dutifully researched his profile subject, but less than an hour before the interview was to take place, Rock backed out.

The reason? “60 Minutes suddenly decided to do a profile of Chris Rock. Pretty soon my worst fear had been realized,” the younger Wallace said. “My old man had stolen the interview—and he knew he had stolen it from me.”

There followed an unpleasant phone conversation between father and son. The son said: “I guess you’re gonna have to decide who’s more important to you—Chris Wallace or Chris Rock.”

There was a very long pause.

“I finally said, ‘Mike, are you there?’ He said, ‘I’m thinking! I’m thinking!’”

Chris Wallace, whose voice sometimes trembled as he struggled to keep his composure, talked of his father’s unpublicized kindnesses: encouraging journalism students and giving solace to victims of depression, a disease from which he also suffered. The younger Wallace confided that he finally bonded with his father as a son 20 years ago, when he was going through a divorce, and Mike Wallace—a three-time loser before happily settling in with his fourth wife, Mary Yates—phoned him every day to find out how he was doing.

“All of us are here today mourning his death and wishing we could have one more moment with him,” Chris Wallace said, his voice breaking. He “was so exasperating, so infuriating. Why do so many of us in this room love him so much? We all knew that deep down, he had a good heart. He was a nice man. He could certainly be naughty or even bad. But he wasn’t mean."