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Memories of Mike Wallace, Off Camera

I admit it – I always had a soft spot for Mike Wallace.

Not the on-camera Wallace, who in his glory days as “60 Minutes’’ chief inquisitor struck fear into the hearts of evil-doers, large and small; but the real Wallace, who died Saturday, a month before his 94th birthday.

I think he had a soft spot for me, too. Not once during 30 years’ of interviews did he lose his legendary temper or make a cutting remark or dodge a question. More than a few times, he returned deadline calls from aboard an airplane — a big deal back in the day.

My favorite interview took place in his CBS office in New York in 1984, shortly before the infamous Westmoreland libel trial. Wallace was a defendant and key witness in the $120 million suit, filed by Gen. William Westmoreland for a 1982 CBS documentary that claimed he had deliberately misrepresented enemy troop strength.

It was a horrible time for Wallace, then 66 and in his 16th season with “60 Minutes.” The trial was weighing heavy on his mind, and his third marriage was on the rocks. Still, he didn’t hesitate when I asked him, on sheer whim, what he usually ate for breakfast.

Two pieces of whole-wheat toast and a vitamin, he said. And, like his father before him, a cup of hot water and lemon … “for the kaboom.”

At that moment, Myron Leon Wallace, the son of Russian immigrants, could have been my father.

The Westmoreland trial lasted 18 weeks. It was settled out of court in February 1985, just days before it was to have gone to the jury. Wallace, scheduled as a defense witness, had not testified.

I couldn’t think of Wallace without thinking of Don Hewitt, the late “60 Minutes” creator and executive producer. He and Wallace, an original “60″ correspondent from 1968, were infamous for their high-decibel office battles. I dubbed them the Sunshine Boys.

I was on the phone with Wallace once when Hewitt grabbed the receiver from his hands and said, “You should be talking to me instead of Mike. I’m much more interesting.” Chuckling, I told him to shut his pie hole and to put Wallace back on the phone. He did.

Wallace and Hewitt “were legendary for their quarrels,” former CBS News president Andrew Heyward recalled yesterday. “Mike was quick to raise his voice, as was Don. They always

made up. It was part of the atmosphere at ’60 Minutes.’ It was always in the service of the story.”

In the early years, when the newsmagazine was struggling, Wallace “was the ballast,” former “CBS Evening News” anchor Dan Rather said yesterday. “He kept the place steady. He was a counter-balance to Don Hewitt.”

Rather credits Wallace for having brought him in as a full-time correspondent in 1975. Years later, the two had a falling out. Wallace’s confrontational style alienated some colleagues, but overall, “they respected, liked and even loved him,” Heyward said. “He was one of the greatest TV newsmen of all time, by any measure.”

It didn’t come easy for Wallace, whose bonafides were hardly up to CBS News standards when he joined as a correspondent in 1963. A former radio announcer and TV game-show host, he had also served as narrator on radio’s ‘The Lone Ranger’ and ‘The Green Hornet,’ and at one point had pitched everything from Parliament cigarettes to Fluffo shortening.

It took the death of his son, Peter, in a mountain-climbing accident in 1962 at the age of 19, to convince Wallace that his destiny was network news. He was 45, and plagued by fear that it was too late. It wasn’t. Despite serious bouts of depression, he kept the pace of a man half his age, churning out 25 pieces every year.

In fact, Wallace was the first CBS staffer exempted from the network’s mandatory age-65 retirement policy – a policy that had forced out beloved anchor Walter Cronkite in 1981 after 19 years.

In our ’84 interview, Wallace said he planned to keep working at CBS until he was “75 or 80.” That would have been 1993 or 1998. Instead, it was 2006 when he stepped down as a regular correspondent. Like Hewitt and Andy Rooney, among others, he continued to have an office at CBS.

“I’m almost 88, for God’s sake. The time has come,” Wallace told me on the day of the announcement. “When it becomes a real pain in the back to travel a lot; when your hearing and your memory aren’t what they used to be, you’re not as qualified to do the job. Little by little, you try to be sensible about it.”

Several times, Wallace stopped in mid-sentence, having lost his train of thought. More than once, he forgot to whom he was speaking. Clearly, the lion in winter had lost his roar. It made me unspeakably sad, and I assumed it would be our last conversation.

It wasn’t. A month later, when reports surfaced that Wallace might jump ship to NBC, we spoke again. Was it true?, I asked. “I haven’t made up my mind,” he said. “I do feel a great loyalty to CBS. I’ve been there for 40 years. I’m there. I’ve been there. I want to continue to be there.

“I’ve got to figure out my life.”

There was to be no figuring. With much of his memory gone, Wallace spent his final years at a care center in New Canaan, Conn.

Goodbye, Mike. You’ll be missed. Kaboom.

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