Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with Morley Safer’s death.
Morley Safer—who, at 84, announced his retirement last week after more than five decades at CBS News, all but six years of that peerless stretch as a star correspondent for 60 Minutes—has died.
“Safer was in declining health when he announced his retirement last week,” CBS News revealed in a statement released on Thursday. Safer watched the hour-long retirement special that aired last Sunday in his Manhattan home, the network said.
Safer was known in his later years to millions of Americans as 60 Minutes’ resident raconteur reporter, but when he took over for Harry Reasoner on the show in 1970 he was already a seasoned foreign correspondent well-known to Americans thanks to his reporting from Vietnam.
In 1965, Safer showed U.S. Marines torching a Vietnamese village with flame-throwers and Zippo lighters, while the villagers—men, women, and children—bitterly sobbed while their homes were set ablaze.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson demanded Safer’s sacking for the report that exposed the truth about the war in Vietnam.
“Your boys shat on the American flag,” LBJ fumed to CBS President Frank Stanton, adding that this obviously unpatriotic scoundrel was probably a Communist.
Drawing on CBS News lore, 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager recalled in an interview with The Daily Beast that when LBJ was informed that Safer was not a Commie, but simply a Canadian, the Leader of the Free World replied, “I knew there was something about him.”
Embedded with Americans on patrol, ducking bullets and mortars, Safer was “as cool as a hog on ice,” retired Brig. Gen. Joe Stringham, a former Green Beret commander, recalled for Morley Safer: A Reporter’s Life.
When he joined 60 Minutes in 1970—at a moment when network television’s very first news magazine show had anemic ratings and was a continual candidate for cancellation—Safer wasn’t even intimidated by Mike Wallace, the program’s sharp-elbowed original correspondent, who fought him tooth and nail for desirable assignments, and frequently stole Safer’s story ideas without a crumb of conscience.
“Mike set out to steal his stories every chance he could,” Fager said, “and Morley had to get used to the idea that Mike Wallace didn’t give a damn if he was upset.”
Although the two managed to patch things up before Wallace’s death four years ago at age 93—in the special, they are shown reminiscing, and Wallace tells Safer he loves him—“they went for long stretches without ever talking,” Fager recalled about their cutthroat competition.
When hotel, multiplex and tobacco magnate Laurence Tisch assumed control of CBS in 1986 and ordered a brutal round of layoffs and cost-cutting, Safer threw caution to the winds by sending his new boss, a hard-boiled businessman with a hair-trigger temper, a stinging letter claiming Tisch was ruining the news division of the celebrated Tiffany Network.
“That took courage—he wasn’t afraid,” Fager said about the man he calls “one of my dearest friends” of nearly 30 years’ standing. “Morley never got a reply. But he didn’t get fired either.”
Needless to say, Safer was kept on, though it is no small irony that he insists in the special that “I really don’t like being on television… It makes me uneasy. It is not natural to be talking to a piece of machinery.”
Safer—who grew up in Toronto, the son of an upholsterer, and dropped out of college to take a job at a small-town Canadian newspaper before becoming a news writer for the Canadian Broadcasting Co.—was possibly the last of his breed.
He’s a real-life, genuinely swashbuckling version of “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” whose 60 Minutes pieces—more than 900 in all—combined adventure, erudition, joie de vivre, and (as with the report that so enraged LBJ) a keen sense of justice, decency, and—as Fager pointed out—“zero bullshit.”
“I really don’t think there’s anybody else in broadcast journalism with the high quality of work and his extraordinary range and collection of stories,” said Fager, who had just come from a visit with Safer, who has been ailing lately and planning on stepping down for the past year. (His final piece, in March, was a profile of Danish architect Bjarke Ingels.)
“He really knows how to tell a story, and he has loved what he does, he’s made good money, and he’s never taken it for granted,” said Fager. “It’s incredibly interesting to watch his stories. I’m sure he did a couple of clunkers. I just said that to him when I was with him. But I can say that almost all of them were gems. He’s such a brilliant writer.”
The 61-year-old Fager, who joined 60 Minutes in 1989 as a junior producer and ultimately became chairman of CBS News, added: “None of us wants to see him go. We want him to be here forever. But it’s just not realistic. He’s the dearest friend I ever had. This is very emotional for us.”
Among the so-called “Morley stories” excerpted in the special—a team effort by 60 Minutes producers Katy Textor, David Browning, Warren Lustig, and Michelle St. John—are Safer’s classic profiles of Jackie Gleason, Katherine Hepburn, Dolly Parton, and Helen Mirren; the story he considers his most important, which exonerated and freed an African-American man wrongly convicted of robbing a fast-food joint in Dallas, Lenell Geter, who credits Safer with saving his life; a gimlet-eyed report on how the once-luxurious Orient Express has gone to seed, as a slovenly, behind-schedule transport for Turkish guest workers; and how certain psychologically depressed citizens of Finland have fallen into a grim obsession with dancing the tango.
Safer—who was unavailable for an interview—explained in an on-camera chat that much of his work has been animated by a “really, really serious affection for eccentricities—eccentric people and eccentric places.”
Safer indicated he would miss the job.
“It’s so much fun to do,” he said. “What would I do if I wasn’t doing this? I have not a clue. Maybe running a whorehouse or something like that. I’m not equipped to do much else.”