Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Mike Wallace in the 1950s, Part 2


 
Night Beat had the look and feel of an interrogation scene in a 1950s film noir crime drama. It was here that Wallace began to earn his reputation as an aggressive interviewer. On a set that consisted of not much more than a dark backdrop, chairs for the host and guest and a bright spotlight, Wallace grilled and probed controversial and popular figures mercilessly, making them sweat. While Wallace would later become a crusader against Big Tobacco as a correspondent for 60 Minutes, he and most of the guests on the show would smoke up a storm, dragging hard on their cigarettes and filling the studio and TV screens at home with second-hand smoke, to the delight of sponsor Phillip Morris.

His questions were aggressive, blunt and persistent. The combative yet curious side he was known for as a child in Brookline came out strong. Coming dangerously close to the edge of what was considered acceptable conversation on television at the time, he asked famed New York hat designer Mr. John, “Is it true that most of the men in the fashion business are homosexual?”

“Was Napoleon homosexual?” Mr. John retorted. A critic from the time was said to observe, “Mr. John looked at Mike Wallace, and he wanted to stick him with his hatpin.”
 
He asked Grace Metalious, author of Peyton Place, if her controversial erotic novel was autobiographical.

“NO!” she answered indignantly.

When he asked Arctic explorer Peter Freuchen, “Psychiatrists say that a man who risks his life many times is not a brave man but one who doubts his own manhood. Does this apply to you?” the grizzled explorer simply grunted.

The show became the talk of New York and people were asking “When is Mike Wallace going to get his face punched in?” (It never happened, on camera anyway.) Meanwhile, he was still to most of America the polite, congenial host of The Big Surprise. TV Guide compared the personas of Mike Wallace between the two shows to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
After nine months of generating publicity and ratings as a local show, ABC signed up Wallace to bring his aggressive interview style to its prime time lineup.
The Mike Wallace Interview, as the network version was called, premiered to a national audience on April 28, 1957, three weeks after The Big Surprise went off the air. The show was weekly and only a half hour but otherwise looked identical to Night Beat.
 

The program began with Wallace, cigarette in hand and against the stark, black backdrop, intoning, “What you’re about to see is unrehearsed, uncensored. My name is Mike Wallace, the cigarette is Phillip Morris.” Then the grilling would begin.

The Mike Wallace Interview struck a sometimes raw nerve with the Lawrence Welk-viewing American public. Among those undergoing his probing questioning were Eldon Lee Edwards, Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan; entertainer Steve Allen, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, segregationist governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, author Tennessee Williams, private detective Fred Otash, iconoclast architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner and author Diana Barrymore of the famously screwed-up Barrymore family.
 
Controversy on the show boiled over, however, when Los Angeles mobster Mickey Cohen expressed the opinion that LA Police Chief William Parker was an “alcoholic, disgusting, sadistic degenerate of the worst type.” Not amused, Chief Parker sued Wallace and ABC for $13 million. The network settled with him out of court.
 
There also seemed to be a “Hollywood barrier.” Tinseltown elitists for the most part shunned the program. A number of actors and entertainers would initially agree to appear, until their agents hastily stepped in and cancelled it, for fear that personal skeletons would come out of the closet or the star would be tricked into expressing an opinion that would offend much of the country, thus ruining his or her career.
 
Critics accused Wallace of being a muckraker and scandalmonger, a sensationalist, not a journalist. Los Angeles TV interviewer Bill Stout sniffed, “Mike Wallace is simply not a newsman.” He was said by another critic to be a humorless cold fish, and another suggested that his questioning of guests indicated a preoccupation with sex, a charge Wallace called “asinine.”  The program itself was compared to the Spanish Inquisition and Confidential magazine, the infamous scandal tabloid.
 
But there was positive publicity as well. Wallace made the cover of the September 16, 1957 issue of Newsweek, and he was profiled as a fascinating figure in a number of magazines at the time. While some critics blasted or poo-pooed him, others praised him as the bravest man on television and one unidentified critic quoted in the Newsweek profile gushed that he “is in the great tradition of intelligent free men who use controversy...to air ideas and...get mankind ahead.”
 
As for the charge of not having a sense of humor, Wallace dispelled that in a parody of his own show on the Jack Benny Program, where a near waterfall of sweat pours down Benny’s face as Wallace “grills” him.
 
Wallace could have become an institution at ABC rather than CBS, but the cash-strapped network found the program to be more trouble than it was worth, and the Mike Wallace Interview disappeared from the schedule after a year and a half.
 
But, he had no problems in continuing to find work. He was quickly snatched up by WNTA-TV Channel 13 in Newark, then a commercial independent station (now Public Television’s WNET) as the evening news anchor and host of a somewhat less confrontational talk show.
 
He further honed his abilities as a hard-news journalist as host of the groundbreaking 1959 documentary “The Hate That Hate Produced” for WNTA, teaming with black reporter Louis Lomax. “The Hate That Hate Produced” introduced “white America” to the Nation of Islam and the militant black Muslim movement, bringing into livingrooms for the first time the likes of Malcom X, Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan, who presided over a trial of the white man for crimes against the black man. The white man was found guilty and sentenced to death.     
 
But Wallace still found himself reluctantly taking jobs that perhaps compromised the reputation he was trying to build as a serious newsman. In the summer of 1959 he hosted yet another prime time game show for NBC, Who Pays? He also found assignments that would bring him to different parts of the globe.
 
“Mike Wallace at Hamilton Harbor, Bermuda. A big race may cover miles. But at the mark, a matter of inches...can make the all-important difference. Same thing in smoking pleasure! A little difference can mean a lot. (He sticks a measuring tape into the butt end of his smoldering cigarette.) Parliament, with its famous hi-fi recessed filter, is continually tested for conformity by the United States Testing Company…”


Tragedy in his life would ultimately lead Mike Wallace to make a turn in his career. In 1961, his oldest son Peter, an aspiring journalist, was killed in a hiking accident in Greece. Grief-stricken, Wallace took a long, hard look at himself and decided to honor the memory of his son and at the same time move forward from his sorrow by quitting all the things he wasn’t proud of; commercials, game shows, acting; and focus his energies on the love he and Peter shared — news.
 
He wrote letters to all the network news organizations, informing them that he’s dropped all the outside interests and would like to be a full-time correspondent. The bosses at the news outlets, however, just didn’t think of him on the same level as Edward R. Murrow or Eric Sevareid. They thought of him as the confrontational interviewer or the huckster who measured the recessed filter in his cigarettes.
 
From 1961 until 1964 he hosted the distinguished syndicated documentary series Biography, a direct ancestor of the popular A&E program. Finally in 1963, CBS called and offered him anchor duties on the CBS Morning News and as a correspondent for CBS Radio. Then in 1968, he was teamed with Harry Reasoner for the new weekly newsmagazine program, 60 Minutes, where he would remain into the 21st Century and win numerous awards for journalism and television excellence.

Meanwhile, his other son, Chris Wallace, became a highly successful television journalist himself, making a name for himself in 1979 on the NBC newsmagazine Prime time Sunday with Tom Snyder, moving on to ABC a few years later and then to Fox, replacing the late Tony Snow as moderator of Fox News Sunday.

Mike Wallace himself, apparently, had no idea he would be around for as long as he was. In 1957, he told Marvin Barrett of Newsweek, when asked about his ambitions and where he was heading, “I have maybe fifteen more productive professional years ahead of me. Maybe twenty. I would like to stay in the area of communicating other people’s ideas and my own to the public in one form or another.” If his assessment of his future had been correct, Mike Wallace would have retired in 1977 at the latest.

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