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For Mike Wallace, a career full of highlights

Tough talk to Khomeini, tender moments and an inimitable interview style
/ Source: The Associated Press

Of the thousands of television interviews Mike Wallace has conducted, he says two stick out the most — one that showed his tender side and the other the tough one.

Wallace interviewed pianist Vladimir Horowitz for “60 Minutes” in 1977, persuading him to play “Stars and Stripes Forever” for the camera. Two years later he was the first Western reporter to take on Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini after American hostages were taken.

The hard-charging Wallace, 87, announced Tuesday that he will retire as a regular “60 Minutes” correspondent this spring. He is the last on-air link to the newsmagazine’s formation in 1968.

“When you have a pacemaker, your ears are not the same as they were, the eyes are not the same, the memory is not the same, there are these long plane flights — I realized the time had come,” he said.

Wallace will still do occasional “60 Minutes” reports, he said. CBS News President Sean McManus referred to him as a “correspondent emeritus.”

In recalling his interview with Horowitz, Wallace said he cares deeply about music and was touched when the pianist he admired turned out to be a regular “60 Minutes” viewer.

The Khomeini interview came at a time when the ayatollah was a feared, strange figure to Americans. To his face, Wallace quoted Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat as calling Khomeini a lunatic.

“I figured, what the hell,” he said. “What was he going to do, take me as a hostage? The translator looked at me as if I were the lunatic.”

Wallace has said for years that he was cutting back, but he’s still done six reports in the current season, including a profile of actor Morgan Freeman and a story on soldiers who lost their limbs in Iraq. It was a significant step last fall when Wallace relinquished his position as the first face viewers saw after the ticking stopwatch on each show. Ed Bradley now has that distinction.

Wallace said he’s still working on getting several big interviews for the show — bet on Tuesday’s announcement helping his cause — and he’d like to do a few hour-long specials in the future. He’ll keep an office at the CBS News headquarters.

“It’s hard for all of us to get used to,” said Jeff Fager, “60 Minutes” executive producer. “It’s a sad day, but it’s also a chance to celebrate an incredible legacy and an amazing guy.”

Even as age slowed him down, Wallace was still able to prod interview subjects in a style all his own. Fager remembered an interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin last year where Wallace said, “This isn’t a real democracy, come on!”

Defining a genreWith founding executive producer Don Hewitt, Wallace helped invent the television newsmagazine; the Sunday-night staple was frequently TV’s top-rated show. Hewitt said Tuesday that Wallace will be remembered with Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite as the three legends of CBS News.

Wallace was still making news long past the time most reporters had retired: In 1998, he aired a report which on videotape showed Dr. Jack Kevorkian injecting lethal drugs into a terminally ill man.

Some of his news subjects fought back. Retired Gen. William C. Westmoreland sued CBS for a Wallace report on the Vietnam War. Although the case was dropped after a long trial, Wallace said the case brought on a depression that put him in the hospital for more than a week.

Wallace also aired a report with tobacco company whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand in 1995 that became the subject of “The Insider,” alleging CBS News caved to pressure from lawyers in delaying the report.

Wallace’s television career dates back to the late 1940s. He acquired his reputation as a tough interrogator with “Night Beat,” a local news show in New York that was a series of one-on-one interviews.

But he was also a game-show host and a commercial pitchman for cigarettes. He became a full-time newsman for CBS in 1963, saying the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in an accident made him decide to stick with serious journalism.