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'60 Minutes' Mike Wallace memorialized
Mike Wallace, "60 Minutes'" legendary newsman who died April 7, was remembered this morning at a packed theater off Columbus Circle as a ferocious competitor with a big heart who shaped a career and landmark news program through sheer, inimitable force of will.
"His very being demanded attention and it was seldom denied," said "60 Minutes" correspondent, Steve Kroft.
At turns feisty, funny, and moving, the portrait of Wallace by colleagues, family and friends - his tribute was in the Rose theater in Jazz at Lincoln Center, where Andy Rooney was also memorialized just months ago – would have been instantly recognized by longtime "60 Minutes" viewers.
"He was a tough cookie, our Mike," said Morley Safer, who effectively bunked next door to Wallace for 40 years at "60 Minutes" headquarters on West 57th Street. "He was a one-man truth squad," Safer added. "A contrarian, in public and private life." Or, as Kroft put it, Wallace was "a mixture of guile and gall," and "the media's first crusading journalist - a n unmasked version of the Green Hornet."
Far from one of those affairs that attested to the good works of a kind and gentle soul, Mike Wallace's memorial had the sting, bite and edge of the man himself. Friends, even his own son, Chris, recalled someone who grabbed stories and boldface name interviews with a bravura that bordered on ruthlessness and occasionally exceeded it.
Upon joining "60 Minutes," Kroft was warned by Dan Rather of the "big cats" at "60" who with "one swing of their paw" would leave a victim maimed for months. "Wallace," Kroft recalled ruefully, "was the biggest cat."
Wallace's farewell was also marked by a certain degree of wistfulness too, as if an institution as much as a single individual had left the stage. Wallace's career spanned the history of TV news, while taped tributes - some of the same that viewers saw recently on "60 Minutes" following his death - recalled the early days in Chicago as the announcer on the “Green Hornet” radio show through to his first years in New York when he launched his ground-breaking news programs, "Night Beat," and “The Mike Wallace Interview” which seeded future endeavors like "Nightline."
But when Safer said, "all of us owe him a huge debut of gratitude," those in attendance knew precisely what he meant because without Wallace or “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt, who died in 2009, there would never have been a "60 Minutes."
The tribute was also moving, though perhaps not unexpectedly so. Chris Wallace, moderator of “Fox News Sunday,” took the stage in the final minutes to observe that one of the benefits of his father's long life - he died at age 93 - was that they had the time to "find our way to each other."
Both once had a strained relationship, or as Wallace put it, "there was an underlying tension" as he struggled to get out from "under his shadow." The breach was mended some time ago when "he tracked me down every night to ask me how I was doing...That's how we became father and son."
In recent years, suffering from Alzheimer’s, Wallace was confined to a convalescence home in New Canaan, Ct. where the trademark ferocity had melted away into the fog of dementia. "But what was left was the essential person,” said Wallace, voice breaking. “What was left was a sweet and gentle man."