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Mike Wallace, fearsome CBS interviewer, is dead at 93

"Mike Wallace is here to see you."

The "60 Minutes" newsman had such a fearsome reputation that it was often said that those were the most dreaded words in the English language, capable of reducing an interview subject to a shaking, sweating mess.

Mr. Wallace, who won his 21st and final Emmy Award at 89, died Saturday in the New Canaan, Conn., care facility where he had lived the last few years of his life. He was 93.

The hard-charging journalist didn't just interview people. He interrogated them, sometimes eviscerated them. His weapons? Thorough research, a cocked eyebrow, a skeptical "Come on" and a question so direct that it took your breath away.

He was well aware that his reputation arrived at an interview before he did, said Jeff Fager, CBS News chairman and Wallace's longtime producer at "60 Minutes."

"He loved it," Fager said Sunday. " He loved the fact that if he showed up for an interview, it made people nervous. He knew, and he knew that everybody else knew, that he was going to get to the truth. And that's what motivated him."

Mr. Wallace made "60 Minutes," television's first newsmagazine, compulsively watchable. His last interview, in January 2008, was with baseball's Roger Clemens on his alleged steroid use. Slowed by triple-bypass surgery later that month and the ravages of time on a once-sharp mind, he retired from public life.

"60 Minutes" veteran Morley Safer paid tribute to his former colleague on the newsmagazine Sunday. He said Mr. Wallace specialized in villains -- charming them to appear on the show and then getting them to reveal their stripes. "He was a kind of one-man truth squad, a man with a remarkable gift for getting to the very core of a story," Safer said. "60 Minutes" plans to present a full tribute to Mr. Wallace on Sunday.

>Took on Khomeini

During the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, in which Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's followers seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage, Mr. Wallace took on Khomeini, then a feared figure.

Mr. Wallace asked Khomeini what he thought about being called "a lunatic" by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Khomeini answered by predicting Sadat's assassination.

He interviewed Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and challenged him: "This isn't a real democracy, come on!" Putin's aides tried to halt the interview; Putin said he was the president, he'll decide what to do.

When a Wallace story found little to back up rumors that Coors beer executives were racist, the relieved company took out newspaper ads trumpeting that it had survived. The ad's top: "The four most dreaded words in the English language: Mike Wallace is here."

He was equally tough on public and private behavior. In 1973, with the Watergate scandal growing, he sat with John Ehrlichman, a top aide to then-President Richard M. Nixon, and read a long list of alleged crimes, from money laundering to obstructing justice. "All of this," Mr. Wallace noted, "by the 'law-and-order' administration of Richard Nixon."

The surly Ehrlichman could only respond: "Is there a question in there somewhere?"

"60 Minutes" pioneered the use of "ambush interviews," with reporter and camera crew corralling alleged wrongdoers in parking lots, hallways, wherever a comment -- or at least a stricken expression -- might be harvested from someone dodging reporters' phone calls.

Mr. Wallace's late colleague Harry Reasoner once said, "There is one thing that Mike can do better than anybody else: With an angelic smile, he can ask a question that would get anyone else smashed in the face."

The show wasn't a hit at first, but worked its way up to the Top 10 in the 1977-78 season and stayed there for 23 years.

Mr. Wallace said he didn't think he had an unfair advantage over his interview subjects: "The person I'm interviewing has not been subpoenaed. He's in charge of himself, and he lives with his subject matter every day. All I'm armed with is research."

In all, Mr. Wallace's TV career spanned six decades, much of it at CBS. In 1949, he appeared as Myron Wallace in a show called "Majority Rules." In the early 1950s, he was an announcer and game show host for programs such as "What's in a Word?" He also found time to act in a 1954 Broadway play, "Reclining Figure," directed by Abe Burrows.

In the mid-1950s came his smoke-wreathed "Night Beat," a series of one-on-one interviews with everyone from an elderly Frank Lloyd Wright to a young Henry Kissinger that began on local TV in New York and then appeared on the ABC network. It was the show that first brought Mr. Wallace fame as a hard-boiled interviewer. His critics named him "Mike Malice."

>Impact of son's death

After holding a variety of other news and entertainment jobs, including serving as ad pitchman for a cigarette brand, Mr. Wallace became a full-time newsman for CBS in 1963.

He said that it was the death of his 19-year-old son Peter in an accident in 1962 that made him decide to stick to serious journalism. Another son, Chris, followed his father as a broadcast journalist. He anchors "Fox News Sunday."

Mr. Wallace had a short stint reporting from Vietnam and took a sock in the jaw while covering the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. But he didn't fit the stereotype of the Eastern liberal journalist. He was a close friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan and was once offered the job of Nixon's press secretary. He called his politics moderate.

>Started in Chicago

The most publicized lawsuit against him was by retired Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who sought $120 million for a 1982 "CBS Reports" documentary, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," that accused Westmoreland and others of deliberately underestimating enemy troop strength during the Vietnam War.

Westmoreland dropped the libel suit in 1985 after a long trial. Lawyers for each side later said legal costs of the suit totaled $12 million, of which $9 million was paid by CBS.

Mr. Wallace said the case brought on depression that put him in the hospital for more than a week. "Imagine sitting day after day in the courtroom, hearing yourself called every vile name imaginable," he said.

Born May 9, 1918, in Brookline, Mass., he began his news career in Chicago in the 1940s, first as a radio news writer for the Chicago Sun and then as a reporter for WMAQ. He started at CBS in 1951.

He was married four times. In 1986, he wed Mary Yates Wallace, the widow of his close friend and colleague Ted Yates, who had died in 1967. Surviving in addition to his wife and son are a stepdaughter, Pauline Dora, and a stepson, Eames Yates.

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