By Henrik Krogius
Following journalism school and a year of travel I was hired as one of two writers for “Mike Wallace and the News,” a program to be aired weekdays at 7 and 11 p.m. over Channel 5, which was then DuMont Television. The year was 1955. An actor who had been doing stage and radio work in Chicago, Wallace had impressed Ted Cott, the station’s general manager, as someone who could bring a fresh dynamism to broadcast news.
To me Mike was a brash figure, handsome but with noticeable acne, which I supposed came from too much use of stage makeup. The really tough person was Ted Cott, who, the story went, had been engaged by NBC as a hatchet man to reduce its managerial staff, and, having accomplished that, was himself given the ax. To shape the news program he had in mind, Cott hired Ted Yates, a gung-ho recent Marine who was no older than I. The other writer was the “veteran” Bill Kobin with all of a year’s work experience.
We had two, maybe three weeks to get the programs up and running, and we worked 11-hour days. Our news resources were meager: a Hearst package that included the nearly useless INS news service and three or four daily clips from Hearst’s film syndication, plus a film crew to go with Mike to shoot a daily story or two. (To get “up-to-date” news for the 11 p.m. show, we ended up running to the corner newsstand for final editions of the then-existing afternoon dailies, the liberal Post, the centrist World-Telegram, and the conservative Journal-American.) A dress rehearsal two days before our debut was a shambles. The script for a 15-minute program was way too long, the films didn’t roll on time, narration didn’t match the film, camera angles and lighting in the studio were wrong. Afterward Cott had us all slumped against a wall as he impressively went point by point over every error.
Remarkably, our first real show went smoothly. Still, there were bobbles ahead. After one bad show Mike complained to Yates and his writers, “You guys screw up, but it’s my face out there on the screen. I’m the horse’s ass.”
When, a couple of months later we had been doing better and garnering some ratings, we had an office party and presented Mike with a plaque to which the rear end of a horse was attached. Mike guffawed. He had an infectious laugh and could relish a joke on himself.
Mike was quick on his feet. He was required to do the commercials as well as the news. Our sponsor was Bond Clothes, a chain of lower-end men’s suits. One day the pitch was for a Bond sale, with cut-out cardboard figures standing in the studio’s commercial space. As Mike walked over to it, the slight breeze from his movement toppled a cardboard. “See,” said Mike into the camera, “the sale is so good even the signs fall for it!”
Meanwhile Ted Cott had further ideas. Television interview programs up then had been polite affairs with only nice questions. Cott experimented with a tougher approach in a 5-minute midday program hosted by Tex McCrary. (McCrary, married to the beautiful Jinx Falkenburg of “Miss Rheingold” fame, shared with her a radio talk show, “Tex and Jinx.”) Satisfied his approach would work, but with a more hard-edged interviewer, Cott chose Mike to do a half-hour evening show called “Night Beat.” It was DuMont’s hit. ABC, then a poor third to CBS and NBC, bought the show to help its ratings.
Mike Wallace was now a household name. But the program hit a snag after not too long. A Los Angeles underworld figure named Mickey Cohen appeared on it and made slanderous accusations against the L.A. police chief, who sued. A worried ABC canceled the show and Mike Wallace was left without regular employment. For three or four years he did some stage work and cigarette commercials. Then his first son, Peter, died while mountain climbing in Greece. I met Mike a couple of times in this period, and he was more subdued and also seemed kindlier.
His subsequent great success on “60 Minutes” at CBS, his entanglement with Gen. William Westmoreland over Vietnam troop estimates, and his near-suicidal subsequent depression have been told in newspaper and television obituaries. Mike Wallace died last Saturday at 93. “60 Minutes” will be devoted to his life and career this Sunday.
I saw Mike only once after he had joined CBS. It was during a visit to an old friend and former NBC colleague who was now a segment producer for “Sunday Morning” on CBS. Mike happened by, and we reminisced a bit about DuMont days before turning to tennis. We had talked about tennis at DuMont but had never played each other. I told Mike I was playing weekly games with John Sharnik, a CBS executive producer who lived in Brooklyn Heights and was a member of the Heights Casino. “How do you do against him?” Mike asked. “I beat him about three times out of five,” I said. Mike looked at me with wide eyes; Sharnik was evidently out of his league in tennis. I won a new respect from Mike that day.