Don Hewitt wasn't just a giant in the world of TV news. He was a founding father of television, with his hand still in the game well into the Internet age.
And he had a ball, leading "maybe the best life that any guy who ever chose journalism as a profession ever led," as he crowed during an interview in 2004 when, only reluctantly, he gave up the reins of "60 Minutes."
"They're making a change in a broadcast that doesn't need any change," said Hewitt, then 81, referring to himself.
Hewitt, who died Wednesday at age 86, invented "60 Minutes," of course. He envisioned it as a new kind of documentary program, borrowing from the words-and-images blend of Life magazine. It premiered in September 1968, and quickly proved two things: Great storytelling could deliver huge audiences to a news show and, consequently, earn the TV network lots of money from news, which until then was regarded as a network public service.
It was a seminal moment in the TV industry, demonstrating that information on TV can earn rich profits. Without meaning to, Hewitt had transformed television news into a cash cow. It would never again be immune to ratings pressure.
But what the hit-show status of "60 Minutes" really meant to Hewitt was, freedom to tell stories the way he thought viewers wanted them told.
He was a kid from New Rochelle, N.Y., who had formed a love for news as well as a regular-guy bond with the "Lions and Rotarians and schoolteachers and hard hats" (as he put it in his 2001 memoir, "Tell Me a Story") — the kind of people to whom "60 Minutes" catered.
With "60 Minutes," he was doing TV journalism his way. And changing it forever.
But this was only Hewitt's second, game-changing act.
By the time "60 Minutes" premiered, he was a middle-aged CBS News producer with 20 years under his belt, a seasoned newsman who had busted into television back when radio still ruled.
It's a measure of the medium's infancy that Hewitt could be credited with using TV's first cue cards and with superimposing titles over TV images for the first time (using a menu board with rearrangeable letters he got from a nearby diner).
A few years later, he made a suggestion that could have changed the outcome of an election. In September 1960, he famously produced the first presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, for which both men turned down his offer of TV makeup — to the regret of the ashen, sweating Nixon.
"From that day on," Hewitt recalled, "you can't even think of running for office in the greatest democracy on Earth unless you've got the money to buy television time." And be sure to wear makeup if you need it.
But all this was just a prelude to "60 Minutes."
With "60 Minutes," the magnetic, scrappy, high-decibel Hewitt became the leading impresario of broadcast journalism — an information purveyor who felt in his gut what viewers would be interested in, whether it was a movie star, a crooked politician or a faulty consumer product.
In 1995, the "60 Minutes" expose on the tobacco industry marked a rare lapse in Hewitt's leadership. Big Tobacco threatened lawsuits and CBS executives caved. Uncharacteristically deferential, Hewitt postponed the story and almost spiked it.
"I could have gone out and hired a bunch of gorillas and taken over the transmitter and put the story on" as originally planned, said Hewitt, displaying a mix of regret and testiness even after nearly a decade. "There was no other way."
But overall in his 36 years at "60 Minutes," he made sure that each story, reported by his stable of correspondents, upheld the standards of CBS News set by his contemporaries — including such legends as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.
Last month, a frail-looking Hewitt attended Cronkite's funeral. Cronkite had died the week before at 92.
In his book, Hewitt recalled first meeting Cronkite in London during World War II.
"Who could have imagined that someday he and I would work together in something called television," wrote Hewitt, clearly still thrilled with his life, "but damned if we didn't."