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Mike Wallace, legendary television journalist, dies

Advertisements for the CBS newsmagazine show “60 Minutes” once boasted that for anyone hiding a secret, four of the most dreaded words in the English language were “Mike Wallace is here.”

As the biggest star of the longest-running, highest-rated, most influential news show since its 1968 debut, Wallace helped define television journalism with an adversarial interviewing style that was as admired as it was feared.

From an early career as an actor, cigarette pitchman and game-show host, he transitioned to what he called a more substantial career in hard news. “60 Minutes” made him rich, famous and one of the most commanding and imitated fixtures of TV journalism for more than two generations.

Wallace, 93, died Saturday at an assisted living facility in New Canaan, Conn., CBS News announced. He had a history of heart ailments, including a triple bypass operation in 2008.

Wallace developed a compelling persona that seamlessly blended country club locker-room bonhomie with the prosecutorial zeal of Torquemada. With his theatrical baritone, he pitched softball questions that could take a sudden detour into an uncomfortable line of questioning meant to sniff out misdeeds or fun gossip.

He became known as one the most skilled interviewers of the powerful, famous and elusive - world leaders, Hollywood celebrities, controversial newsmakers, notorious criminals and the hinkiest scam artists. He was a pioneer of the surprise or “ambush” interview, a technique intended to shock its targets into spilling information they might not in a scheduled interview.

In short, he helped invent magazine-style television, which merged elements of news and entertainment in a powerful and immensely profitable way that kept CBS the most formidable of network-news providers for years and “60 Minutes” one of the most trusted of news programs.

Its weekly viewership reached 40 million at the peak of network TV audiences in the early 1980s. It spawned many imitators and, like Wallace, won the top honors of the profession.

Television historian Ron Simon said Wallace’s ability to remain engaging while asking aggressive questions was crucial to his success as an investigative reporter.

“He paved the way for how investigative journalism is done on television,” said Simon, a curator at the Paley Center for Media, a New York-based museum of radio and television. “He created a persona that worked for many decades and was compelling to viewers, who identified with him and trusted him as someone representing their interests.”

When mapping out an interview, Wallace told Time magazine he organized his questions by ambition, motivation, greed, joy and defeat, and said this established a “chemistry of confidentiality” that showed his guests “I cared enough to read and look at and worry about the questions.”

Among Wallace’s memorable exchanges was a 1979 interview with Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini shortly after his followers seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage.

“Imam,” Wallace began, “President Sadat of Egypt says what you are doing is, quote, ‘a disgrace to Islam.’ And he calls you, imam, forgive me, his words, not mine, ‘a lunatic.’ “

The moment was riveting, in part because the interpreter initially refused to translate what Wallace had said. Wallace said the statement was crucial to make, to get around Khomeini’s “almost robotic” responses on questions that had been approved in advance by Iranian officials.

Khomeini called for Sadat’s “overthrow”; Sadat was killed by gunmen in 1981.

In other interviews, Wallace caused a long chill in his friendship with the Reagans when he appeared to criticize first lady Nancy Reagan for not being able to say how many blacks were on her husband’s top campaign staff.

Wallace once got a Chicago business executive keeping two sets of tax records to admit to fraud on camera. As the reporter described the story to USA Today: “I said, ‘Look, between you and me, Chicagoans do this all the time, right?’ And he says, ‘Between you and me, you’re right.’

“Between you and me and the whole middle of America! What a moment!”

Wallace said he liked constructing stories as if they were “morality plays,” and his reports developed certain hallmarks over the years: the penetrating question, the close-up so intense it showed the guest’s pores, the way he discredited a guest’s statement by repeating it back in disbelief.

In 1993, Wallace and a camera crew surprised a New Mexico priest, on a 10-mile pilgrimage, who allegedly molested a parishioner when she was 15.

The priest, Robert Kirsch, said Wallace was harassing him but the newsman persisted: “Now why would she say that about you . . . if it were not so?”

A state judge ruled against the accuser because she had waited too long to bring her claim.

Wallace himself was once asked on “60 Minutes” if he’d worry about someone barging into his office and confronting him with what appeared to be bombshell evidence.

“I wouldn’t,” joked the four-time married Wallace, “which is why I lead a life beyond reproach.”

As the decades passed, Wallace became as much a celebrity as any of the actors, presidents and dictators he profiled. His was instantly recognizable with his full, pitch-black hair raked backward, his deeply tanned skin and enviably trim physique earned from years of tennis and sit-ups.

Despite his bouts of depression, his stamina for demanding assignments and far-flung travels never waned. “I love the urgency of what we do,” he told People magazine. “I like the battles that take place, the jousting.”

He remained a competitive correspondent on “60 Minutes” well into his senior years — “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt once called him a “force of nature” — and he could turn brusque and demanding when he was not accorded star status on assignment choice.

Mindful of his public image, Wallace became a leading and controversial voice in the 1990s debates over corporate censorship in journalism when CBS executives interfered with his “60 Minutes” segment on a tobacco industry whistleblower.

Wallace conducted the interview with the whistleblower, Jeffrey Wigand, who said he could prove cigarette executives were lying when they publicly declared they knew of no evidence to prove the addictive nature of nicotine.

The segment was made just as CBS was in the middle of a takeover by the conglomerate Westinghouse, and the network feared Wigand’s confidentiality agreement with his old employer, Brown & Williamson, would make CBS susceptible to a multibillion-dollar lawsuit.

In 1995, “60 Minutes” broadcast only a small portion of Wigand’s interview and hid his identity and face. On air, Wallace noted the limitations imposed by CBS management.

But the entire behind-the-scenes drama proved damaging to the prestige of “60 Minutes” and Wallace and culminated in a Hollywood film, “The Insider” (1999), with Christopher Plummer portraying Wallace as a corporate lackey who didn’t use his authority to stand up for journalistic integrity.

Wallace denounced the film, and CBS News President Andrew Heyward said Wallace was “vociferous and public in his campaign and in his criticism of his own corporate bosses.”

Wallace lightened his opinion after the film was nominated for Academy Awards, telling a reporter, “Everybody is saying I really don’t look so bad at all in it.”

Wallace threatened to retire but never did, saying in his 2005 memoir, “Between You and Me,” he kept getting interview “opportunities I can’t turn down.”

The interview he always wanted and never got was with Pope John Paul II.

“I wanted to talk to him not just about being the pope, but about other things — about acting, about politics, about celibacy, about skiing,” he told the Newark Star-Ledger. “I wanted to talk to him as a man.”