At the end, there were too many stories to keep television news pioneer Don Hewitt’s memorial service to 60 minutes.
A CBS News lifer who created “60 Minutes” and ran TV’s first newsmagazine from 1968 to 2004, Hewitt died in August of pancreatic cancer at age 86. Only a month after a public memorial service for Walter Cronkite, CBS brought many of its old-timers back on Monday to pay tribute to Hewitt.
He was described as a quick and curious showman who maintained a childlike enthusiasm for life and his work, whose credo for stories big and small was “tell me a story.” He was so persistent with his idea for “60 Minutes” in the 1960s that colleagues would duck away when seeing him for fear of hearing it again.
Joan Ganz Cooney, a friend who helped create “Sesame Street,” said Hewitt ranked with CBS newscasters Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, and ABC executive Roone Arledge as the four most important men in the development of TV news.
“They’re the ones who showed what television news could be,” Cooney said. “They’re the ones that others followed.”
He was an innovator even before “60 Minutes,” producing the first televised presidential debate in 1960. Former colleague Phil Scheffler said that as a college student he visited Hewitt at CBS News in 1950, when the biggest graphic idea was someone using a stick to point to a map of Korea while the newsreader talked about the war. Hewitt envisioned a day when producers could choose from live transmissions from all over the world.
Hewitt’s arguments about stories with “60 Minutes” correspondents Morley Safer and Mike Wallace were legendary, although Safer said his former boss held a grudge for about 15 minutes.
Safer said he quickly learned to keep a “blue sheet,” the show’s parlance for a story idea, short or Hewitt wouldn’t consider it.
“He had the attention span of a fruit fly on acid,” Safer said.
Wallace, who’s been ailing, attended the memorial but didn’t speak.
His family filled in on his colorful side outside of work. Bill Cassara, Hewitt’s son-in-law, told about Hewitt asking his family to spend much of a weekend filming him driving and trying to “lip-synch” to Frank Sinatra’s music. Cassara showed some of the hilarious outtakes.
CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves said he was honored to be the recipient of many of Hewitt’s ideas — until finding out the security guard and office cleaners heard the same ones.
“I still wait for the phone to ring and hear these words, ‘Kid, I got a great idea for you,”’ he said.
Moonves was involved in the delicate business of getting Hewitt to finally give up the reins at age 81. Jeff Fager, his replacement, noted that made for awkwardness in their relationship, but time passed. Hewitt had always said he wanted to die at his desk.
In a way, he did, said actor and friend Alan Alda. “His desk was in his head and he never left,” Alda said.
Fager recalled seeing Hewitt at Cronkite’s funeral and the old producer confided that it was great, but he would have done it in half the time.
“In his honor today, we’re going to do our best to keep it to 60 minutes,” he said.
Seventy-five minutes later, the audience filed out.