The 60 Minutes grand inquisitor answers indiscreet questions.
Wed May 30 2007
Illustration: Rob Kelly
Once described as "the Torquemada of television," 89-year-old Mike Wallace has been grilling people for 50 years, first on local programs Night Beat and The Mike Wallace Interview, and then on 60 Minutes, where he's worked since 1968. Now a semiretired "correspondent emeritus," Wallace continues to grab headlines both for his work—he recently profiled Russian president Vladimir Putin—and for his combative personality. In 2004, he interfered with a couple of Taxi and Limousine Commission agents who were questioning his double-parked driver; Wallace was arrested for lunging at the inspectors and speaking in an "overtly assertive and disrespectful manner." Sounds like Mike.
On Sunday 3, he'll host "Some of My Favorite Pieces," a compilation featuring famous interviews with, among others, actor and PLO supporter Vanessa Redgrave, whom Wallace profiled in 1978 after she accepted a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Julia and denounced those who protested her nomination as "Zionist hoodlums." In the Wallace spirit, we open with his icebreaker to Redgrave:
"So you hate the Jews?"
Don't you call that a "When did you stop beating your wife?" question?
Well, although I'm not a particularly religious Jew, I'm an ethnic Jew, and for that reason I thought I had the right and the duty to ask her that question, and let the chips fall where they may.... I was asked to choose the most interesting individuals I've ever interviewed, and she was one of them.
Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who's finishing a prison term for the assisted-suicide death of Thomas Youk, was another.
I had profiled him back in 1998, and I figured we should see him again. It's difficult to think about a killing as compassionate. But I think what he did was an extraordinarily compassionate act.
If you were in Youk's situation, would you want someone to end your life?
Oh, God yes.
What was it like interviewing Malcolm X in 1964?
We became friends after I interviewed him. I'll never forget him telling me that, because of his views, he was "probably a dead man already." And six months later, he was dead. I got to know his widow, Betty Shabazz, and decades later I sat down to interview her and...Forgive me, I'm having trouble remembering his name.
Are you thinking of Louis Farrakhan? Didn't he admit to you that his words might have egged on people to kill Malcolm X?
Yes. Forgive my memory—I'm old. It'll happen to you, too, you son of a bitch!
You've interviewed a hell of a lot of people—anyone would have trouble recalling names.
It's not just the years. There are other factors. Not too long ago, I was on a beach near New Haven, going over a jetty, and I lost my balance and fell 12 feet and landed right on my head. I woke up and didn't even realize I was bleeding from the head. That was two or three summers ago, and it played hell with my memory.
Are there any questions that you wish you hadn't asked?
[The actor] Faye Emerson once said to me, "Mike, there is no such thing as an indiscreet question." I think that's true.
Has an interview subject ever successfully bluffed or lied to you?
Not that I know of. But Burt Lancaster once got so angry at me that I thought he was gonna belt me. He came on my show to publicize his performance in Birdman of Alcatraz, and since I'd heard his temper was positively lethal, I thought I might try to trigger it on air. So I asked him about that incident on a transatlantic flight where he got into a fight with a guy he was sitting next to and knocked him out.
What did he do?
Oh, he got steamed and walked out of the live broadcast—and I had to fill up the last ten minutes of airtime talking about what had just happened. Shelley Winters, who was a friend of his, later said that she was overjoyed to see Mike Wallace fumbling around on camera, not knowing what to say.
Wallace's special solo edition of 60 Minutes airs Sun 3 at 7pm on CBS.