CBS News legend Mike Wallace was so competitive he even poached an interview from his son.
At Tuesday's memorial service for his father, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace recounted how in 1996, he booked comedian Chris Rock for a coveted sit-down on ABC's 20/20. At the last moment, Rock backed out. When it was revealed that Rock was doing 60 Minutes instead, Chris Wallace's worst fear came true. "My old man had stolen the interview and he knew he stole it from me," he told the audience gathered at Rose Hall at the Time Warner Center in New York.
Wallace had done the same thing to his colleagues at 60 Minutes over the years, and when that happened, they didn't speak to him for months afterwards. That was the price of being in Wallace's world, where he often blazed new paths in TV news. He was combative and irrepressible up to a few years before his death on April 7 at age 93.
Throughout the service, video clips played showing the confrontational interview style Wallace first brought to television as a talk show host in the mid-1950s. He displayed the same nerve whether he was bringing down a small-time con man or asking the Ayatollah Khomeini about being called a lunatic. "Work was his life and he did not merely live life, he attacked it," said 60 Minutes cohort Morley Safer.
While Wallace was self-conscious about his early years as an actor, quiz-show host and commercial pitchman — typical multi-tasking in the early days of television — his serious work as a journalist began well before his historic run on 60 Minutes started in 1968. He did programs on the civil rights movement in the late '50s and gave a TV platform to Malcolm X shortly before he was killed. But as pointed out in a video interview, it was the 1962 death of Wallace's son, Peter, in a mountain climbing accident that set the journalist on a more serious and purpose-driven path.
Yet Wallace was always ambitious. 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft recounted how Wallace said he stayed married to his first wife in the early 1950s because their talk show had a chance to go national. They only talked to each other on the air. "He loved being in the spotlight," said Safer. "It was his drug."
Safer noted how Wallace even enjoyed the tabloid commotion created by an altercation he had with a New York City police officer who ticketed his double-parked limo. Wallace had jumped out to get a meatloaf from a Manhattan restaurant; he believed his arrest, which made the front page, helped raise his public profile late in his career.
While Wallace could be maddening, he often charmed those around him. His son Chris, who made amends with him after the stolen interview incident, noted how more than one of the women sitting in the audience had once told him they found his father sexy. "He had a good heart," Chris Wallace said. "He could be naughty, but he wasn't mean." As Mike Wallace said himself in a taped interview that was shown at the service, it was a bumpy and satisfying road.