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