“What you’re about to witness is strictly personal. A direct, undiluted, unrehearsed, uncensored interview…”
Goodbye, Mr. Wallace
My father and I did a great many things together. He was a caretaker and we lived in what Connecticut called the caretaker’s ‘cottage’ (Although all my apartments and houses since then look like Anne Frank’s cupboard in comparison; size-wise, that is). My dad and I would paint together, clean up the lawns, pull weeds in the garden, and every weekend we would watch football together. (Go Niners!) He was one of those quiet souls that made him an incredible father but an even more incredible friend.
On Sunday evenings we would sit in the living room and that clock would begin ticking on the television set. I hated school but I loved information, and when 60 Minutes came on they would always regale me with the new stories, issues, trials, tribulations – and that incredible short piece of humor with Andy Rooney before all was said and done.
Mike Wallace was one of those ‘characters’ to me that was larger than life. He actually frightened me when I was little because he was more fearsome than my English teacher, who was pretty brutal in her own special way.
Mike Wallace was riveting. He had this way of coming at his guests, surprising them with words and questions that they never thought of answering. They would become flummoxed, cry, or get mad – but Mike always kept that stern face and never batted an eyelash no matter what the star or villain said who was sitting across from him. I’ve noticed that with his death, all the ‘tribute’ articles are speaking about his interview with the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 during the Iran hostage crisis. But it was far before 60 Minutes came along that I remembered something else that should be talked about. No, I wasn’t born when “The Mike Wallace Interview” was on the air. But with the internet – everything is saved for all time – and those were the interviews I came across that blew me away.
Wallace would come on the air and have to do a commercial for Philip Morris cigarettes, because they were the sponsor of the show and he had a contract with them. But then that voice would turn into the hardened journalist and he would introduce his guest. They were icons. To me, they always will be because most of them passed before I ever came into the world. If you’ve never seen them and you’re struggling, or have the desire to be a reporter or journalist one of these fine days, I suggest you go back and take a look. Even while hawking a cigarette, Mike Wallace knew exactly what he was doing and could draw the audience in, surprising his guest with only a sentence or two. He kept it simple. There was no silly music or ‘tag-lines’ like there are in today’s newscasts that seem to want their shows to look like rock-and-roll concerts, with their neon lights and ridiculous fashion choices. Wallace also had one thing in common with my father, and that one thing seems to be vanishing from the world of news in my generation – Mike Wallace told the truth, no matter how rotten or scary it was.
Gloria Swanson was the very first guest on “The Mike Wallace Interview,” which premiered on April 28, 1957. It was right after Sunset Boulevard hit the masses that he interviewed this actress. The headlines at the time announced that Gloria Swanson was having her comeback, and the same reporters who’d once called her hideous were now singing her praises because of that film.
She was a quiet woman (duh, she was a silent-film actress). Mike Wallace interrupted her a great deal, pushing the point that many were making that she was not an actress before Sunset. He wanted to know if she thought she could actually act, even mentioning that other actresses, like Bacall, had been able to keep going by: “making up for their absence or decline of youthful beauty with their outstanding acting ability, whereas you couldn’t.” Gloria kept her cool, saying that: “I was a silent film star – more known for my own personality and the things I did then for my acting.” She agreed that she’d never done anything to get her acclaim, and the Hollywood debate raged on.
Perhaps this is the first ‘ground’ that Mike Wallace laid, making a point at the onset that HE was in charge and that they, even though they might not want to answer his questions, were going to no matter what. He actually got Swanson to say that she didn’t have any real acting ability. Wallace quoted her friends, ex-actors, etc., just to get a rise out of her, but he didn’t. and as the interview came to an end, Mike Wallace closed with compliments before signing off.
He went on to interview Eldon Edwards, who was the Imperial Wizard of the Klan. The guy looked ridiculous, so it was amazing to me that Wallace didn’t burst into hysterical laughter. He did state a NY Times report about how people saw some of the Klan in the City – people of all races – who simply laughed, thinking they were nothing more than imbeciles. The man kept heralding the fact that the Klan was respected, but by the time the interview was over all he’d done was make himself into an idiot – spouting words that were becoming drivel, seeing as that the world was heading into the 60’s and a huge change would eventually occur in society.
I was riveted by Dr. Ralph Lapp, another before my time, who was a nuclear physicist that helped develop the atomic bomb. He gave up research after the bomb was created and had turned to writing and lecturing against further nuclear work. All I realized was that this was a very brutal and frightening time, and I was amazed that ALL people were not hiding in their cellars just waiting for the world to turn to dust.
Lili St. Cyr was one guest who made me cringe at first because she seemed scared – chain smoking in her chair. She was America’s leading strip teaser, but she didn’t actually believe that it was that bad to be vicarious. She even thought that some of the men who came to her performance were simply coming to give her tips, such as telling her if they didn’t like her costume, or the music she’d chosen to dance to that night. She thought a man’s attendance was not because they were lonely: “Some brought their wives along with them to the show.” And although she wasn’t proud of what she did, she was honest – no matter what Mike Wallace threw at her. She simply said: “I need to make money and I can’t do anything else.” When Mike asked his final question that, perhaps, was a barb: “What kind of world would this be if everyone was like you?” She simply smiled and said it would be all right, because basically, she’d never hurt anyone in her life, whereas others did. That got a smile. Mike gave her compliments at the end, as well. She was a strong, independent woman who had secrets; her eyes held a great deal of pain, but when all was said and done, she was simply nothing more than a dancer.
It was in 1957 that Elsa Maxwell, a very loud, boisterous, and funny syndicated gossip columnist and professional party hostess spoke to Mike. She was on fire, and gave her views about everyone from Elvis Presley to Nikita Khrushchev to Jane Mansfield. She spoke about alcohol and how society had become somewhat immoral along the way. She even stepped on people like Greta Garbo, then changed her mind on that one. She was hysterical! She, as far as she was concerned, was the self-appointed Queen of hostesses, and said the one party she would never throw would be one where Elvis, Khrushchev, and Mansfield were in the same room. She said they were the most horrible people in the world. She called everyone’s love – Elvis – an unattractive man with no talent whatsoever; Mansfield was a bore and done, career-wise; and Khrushchev was dangerous – simply because all drunks are dangerous and he slammed down way too much vodka to be taken seriously. She was the only guest I saw in those old tapes who stopped Wallace in his tracks. She interrupted him a great deal, because she was the real star in “tinsel town.” Her words: “Unless I’ve met somebody, they have NOT arrived.” She made Wallace laugh – almost an unknown sight in his career.
One more I have to tell you about was a man who was still very much alive when I was. Of course, with Mike Wallace, he was still a young actor who Hollywood had just dubbed ‘the heir apparent’ to people like Clark Gable. Tony Perkins was Norman Bates, to me, in this interview. He was quiet, he kept that hesitant smile on his face, he looked nervous and uncomfortable, but his eyes were dark and wide-open, just waiting for the next question to arrive. There was a sense of spine-tingling fear in that interview, because he had the face and the voice that made me believe a knife was duct-taped to the back of his chair and if Wallace went too far, he’d use it.
This interview was aired on March 22, 1958 – two years before the ‘Bates Motel’ would become an icon in horror films. Tony Perkins discussed with Wallace the unflattering news stories that were being put out about him. Newsweek was a big one – they actually placed him on their cover, but wrote in the article that he was rude and obnoxious as a person. Wallace asked him how he felt about being the new ‘Number One,’ and told Tony that he was most definitely the icon for this new ‘beat’ generation that was appearing. Tony talked about freedom and that he wasn’t all that happy about being Number One, seeing as that there was nowhere to go but down. He also was very private, speaking about the fact that even though he was making a ton of money at the time, he had no reason to move out of his $50.00 a month flat in Manhattan (WOW! $50?) Going back and forth from a doe in the headlights to a serial killer (in my mind), Tony was only one who seemed to fill the screen even larger than Wallace did.
There are many, many more of these ‘gems’ that are held in the vaults of http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/collections/film/holdings/wallace/ for all to see. I suggest you see them! Each and every guest was amazing, and you will be riveted by the fact that Mike Wallace was already grinding and gnashing his teeth, and doing his absolute best to get the truth out of his guest before the screen went dark.
Mike Wallace seemed to like villains, however, far more than the Hollywood types. He could charm them and then bury them on national T.V.. Unlike most of the news programs you watch nowadays Mike Wallace wanted the truth, and he wasn’t going to stop until he got it!
He was ninety-three when he passed away, and I known that he’d stated, Pat Nixon was an interview he would’ve loved to have. But I wonder who, exactly, is out there in this world right now that he wished he could’ve interviewed before his career had come to an end. Let’s face it…there’s not many left who are interesting.
When he retired from 60 Minutes I still watched the show, but it suffered a decline when the face and voice of the toughest reporter in the industry disappeared from the weekly introductions. He was larger than life to a kid sitting in her living room learning about all the atrocities that were going on far away from her small-town world.
When Mike Wallace was on that screen there was absolutely no way to leave the room. He, like my father, was larger than life.
Until Next Time, Everybody,