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Mike Wallace, 93, hard-boiled news reporter for ‘60 Minutes’

CBS/FILE 1964

Mr. Wallace, shown with gear he used at 1964 political conventions, brought a performer’s presence to reporting.

NEW YORK - Mike Wallace, the CBS reporter who became one of the nation’s best-known broadcast journalists as an interrogator of the famous and infamous on “60 Minutes,’’ died Saturday. He was 93.

On its website, CBS said Mr. Wallace died at a care facility in New Canaan, Conn., where he had lived in recent years. Mr. Wallace, who was outfitted with a pacemaker more than 20 years ago, had a long history of cardiac care and underwent triple bypass heart surgery in January 2008.

He and Harry Reasoner (right) were the first co-hosts of ‘60 Minutes.’

CBS/FILE 1968

He and Harry Reasoner (right) were the first co-hosts of ‘60 Minutes.’

A reporter with the presence of a performer, Mr. Wallace went head to head with chiefs of state, celebrities, and con artists for more than 50 years, living for the moment when “you forget the lights, the cameras, everything else, and you’re really talking to each other,’’ he said in an interview with The New York Times videotaped in July 2006 and released on his death as part of the online feature “The Last Word.’’

Mr. Wallace created enough such moments to become a paragon of television journalism in the heyday of network news. As he grilled his subjects, he said, he walked “a fine line between sadism and intellectual curiosity.’’

His success often lay in the questions he hurled, not the answers he received.

“Perjury,’’ he said, in his staccato style, to President Richard M. Nixon’s right-hand man, John D. Ehrlichman, while interviewing him during the Watergate affair. “Plans to audit tax returns for political retaliation. Theft of psychiatric records. Spying by undercover agents. Conspiracy to obstruct justice. All of this by the law-and-order administration of Richard Nixon.’’

Ehrlichman paused and said, “Is there a question in there somewhere?’’

No, Mr. Wallace later conceded. But it was riveting television.

Both the style and the substance of his work drew criticism. CBS paid Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, $100,000 for an exclusive (if inconclusive) pair of interviews with Mr. Wallace in 1975. Critics called it checkbook journalism, and even Mr. Wallace conceded later that it had been “a bad idea.’’

For a 1976 report on Medicaid fraud, the show’s producers set up a phony health clinic in Chicago. Was the use of deceit to expose deceit justified? Hidden cameras and ambush interviews were all part of the game, Mr. Wallace said, though he abandoned those techniques in later years, when they became a cliche and no longer good television.

Some subjects were unfazed by Mr. Wallace’s unblinking stare. When he sat down with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian leader, in 1979, he said that President Anwar Sadat of Egypt “calls you, Imam - forgive me, his words, not mine - a lunatic.’’ The translator blanched, but Khomeini responded, calmly calling Sadat a heretic.

“Forgive me’’ was a favorite phrase of Mr. Wallace’s, the caress before the garrote. “As soon as you hear that,’’ he told the Times, “you realize the nasty question’s about to come.’’

Mr. Wallace invented his hard-boiled persona on a program called “Night Beat.’’ Television was black and white, and so was the discourse, when the show went on the air in 1956, weeknights at 11, on the New York affiliate of the short-lived DuMont television network.

“Night Beat’’ moved to ABC in 1957 as a half-hour, coast-to-coast, prime-time program, renamed “The Mike Wallace Interview.’’ ABC, then the perennial loser among the major networks, promoted him as “the Terrible Torquemada of the TV Inquisition.’’

The show came under attack after a guest, the syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, called Senator John F. Kennedy “the only man in history I know who won a Pulitzer Prize for a book that was ghostwritten.’’ The book was “Profiles in Courage.’’ The Kennedys’ lawyers forced ABC to retract, though in fact the senator’s speechwriter, Theodore C. Sorensen, was the book’s undisclosed coauthor.

Mr. Wallace’s career path meandered after ABC canceled “The Mike Wallace Interview’’ in 1958. He had done entertainment shows and quiz shows and cigarette commercials. He had acted onstage. But he resolved to become a real journalist after a harrowing journey to recover the body of his first son, Peter, who died at 19 in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962.

“He was going to be a writer,’’ Mr. Wallace said in the interview with The Times. “And so I said, ‘I’m going to do something that would make Peter proud.’ ’’

He set his sights on CBS News and joined the network as a special correspondent. He was soon anchoring “The CBS Morning News With Mike Wallace’’ and reporting from Vietnam. Then he caught the eye of Richard Nixon.

Running for president, Nixon offered Mr. Wallace a job as his press secretary shortly before the 1968 primaries began.

“I thought very, very seriously about it,’’ Mr. Wallace told The Times. “I regarded him with great respect. He was savvy, smart, hardworking.’’

But Mr. Wallace turned Nixon down, saying that putting a happy face on bad news was not his cup of tea.

Months later, “60 Minutes’’ made its debut. The trademark ticking of the Tag Heuer stopwatch marked the moment.

It was something new on the air: a “news magazine,’’ usually three substantial pieces of about 15 minutes each - a near-eternity on television. Mr. Wallace and Harry Reasoner were the first co-hosts, one fierce, one folksy.

The show, which moved to Sunday nights at 7 in 1970, was slow to catch on. Creative conflict marked its climb to the top of the television heap in the 1970s. Mr. Wallace fought his fellow correspondents for the best stories and the most airtime.

“There would be blood on the floor,’’ Mr. Wallace said in the interview. He said he developed the “not necessarily undeserved reputation’’ of being prickly - he used a stronger word - and “of stealing stories from my colleagues,’’ who came to include Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, Dan Rather, and Diane Sawyer in the 1970s and early 1980s.

“This was just competition,’’ he said. “Get the story. Get it first.’’

Mr. Wallace and his teams of producers - who researched, reported, and wrote the stories - took on American Nazis and nuclear power plants along with his patented brand of exposes.

The time was ripe for investigative television journalism. Watergate and its many seamy sideshows had made muckraking a respectable trade. By the late 1970s, “60 Minutes’’ was the top-rated show on Sundays. For five consecutive years it was the number one show on television, a run matched only by “All in the Family’’ and “The Cosby Show.’’ Mr. Wallace was rich and famous and a powerful figure in television news when his life took a stressful turn in 1982.

That year he anchored a “CBS Reports’’ documentary called “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception.’’ It led to a $120 million libel suit filed by General William C. Westmoreland, the commander of US troops in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968. At issue was the show’s assertion that Westmoreland had deliberately falsified the “order of battle,’’ the estimate of the strength of the enemy.

After more than two years of struggle, Westmoreland abandoned his suit midtrial, CBS lost some of its reputation, and Mr. Wallace had a nervous breakdown.

He said at the time that he feared “the lawyers for the other side would employ the same techniques against me that I had employed on television.’’ Already on antidepressants, which gave him tremors, he had a waking nightmare while sitting through the trial.

He attempted suicide. “I was so low that I wanted to exit,’’ Mr. Wallace said. “And I took a bunch of pills, and they were sleeping pills. And at least they would put me to sleep, and maybe I wouldn’t wake up, and that was fine.’’

Later in life he discussed his depression and advocated psychiatric and psychopharmaceutical treatment.

Mr. Wallace officially retired from “60 Minutes’’ in 2006, after a 38-year run, at the age of 88. A few months later he was back on the program with an exclusive interview with the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

He won his 21st Emmy award for the interview.

And he kept working. Only weeks before his 2008 bypass surgery, he interviewed the baseball star Roger Clemens as accusations swirled that Clemens had used performance-enhancing drugs.

Myron Leon Wallace was born in Brookline, Mass., on May 9, 1918, one of four children of Friedan and Zina Wallik, who had come to the United States from a Russian shtetl before the turn of the 20th century. His father started as a wholesale grocer and became an insurance broker.

Myron came out of Brookline High School with a B-minus average, worked his way through the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and graduated in 1939.

After he graduated from college, he went almost immediately into radio, starting at $20 a week at a station with the call letters WOOD-WASH in Grand Rapids, Mich. He went on to Detroit and Chicago stations as narrator and actor on shows like “The Lone Ranger’’ and “The Green Hornet,’’ along the way acquiring “Mike’’ as his broadcast name.

In December 1943 he enlisted in the Navy, did a tour of duty in the Pacific, and wound up as a lieutenant junior grade in charge of radio entertainment at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.

Mr. Wallace married his first wife, Norma Kaphan, in 1940; they divorced in 1948. Besides Peter, who died in the mountain-climbing accident, they had a second son, Chris Wallace, the television journalist now at Fox News.

Mr. Wallace and his second wife, Buff Cobb, an actress, were married in 1949 and took to the air together, in a talk show called “Mike and Buff,’’ which appeared first on radio and then television. They divorced in 1954. Cobb died in 2010.

His marriage to Lorraine Perigord, which lasted 28 years, ended with her departure for Fiji. His fourth wife, Mary Yates, was the widow of one of his best friends: his “Night Beat’’ producer, Ted Yates, who was killed while on assignment for NBC News during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Besides his wife and his son Chris, Mr. Wallace leaves a stepdaughter, Pauline Dora; two stepsons, Eames and Angus Yates; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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