Mike Wallace is perhaps best known as the dogged investigative reporter on the CBS-TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes, whose aggressive style made him the bane of politicians, celebrities, and evildoers for decades. But as revealed in Avi Belkin’s new biographical documentary, Mike Wallace Is Here, there was much more to Wallace than met the eye.
Those who know Wallace only from his work on 60 Minutes will probably be surprised to learn that he did not set out to be a serious journalist. In the 1950s, he was a lightweight performer willing to take any gig on camera that would help pay the bills, including game-show host, commercial spokesperson for cigarette companies, and actor. One of those early gigs was hosting a late-night talk show in which he started developing the merciless style of interviewing that would one day make him famous. None of these early gigs lasted long.
As the ’50s turned over into the ’60s, Wallace shifted more and more into journalism, eventually landing at CBS News—then the jewel of broadcast journalism, home of the legendary Edward R. Murrow, who once bested the infamous Joe McCarthy. Wallace was not readily accepted by the lifelong serious journalists at CBS, who derided him for his early work in show business and advertising—a more-than-hypocritical stance, given that even Murrow had to indulge in celebrity journalism to help pay the bills.
In the early ’60s, Wallace connected with an up-and-coming producer named Don Hewitt, who was putting together a new type of broadcast news program, a newsmagazine to be called 60 Minutes. It was there that Wallace perfected his signature no-holds-barred interview and investigational style, which helped make 60 Minutes a smash hit.
Beyond the camera
As is usually the case with hard-driving personalities focused on work, Wallace had a troubled and complicated personal life. He went through several marriages and his relationships with his children, though loving, were often difficult. In particular, the death of his eldest son in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962 haunted him for years.
Avi Belkin’s documentary is not overly concerned with Wallace’s private life beyond a basic timeline. The director’s interest centers on Wallace’s work and its impact on the field of broadcast journalism, which was considerable—and is still being assessed. The success of 60 Minutes, and the popularity of Wallace’s particular sensationalistic “gotcha” investigations, led to a horde of imitators. It also, perhaps inevitably, sparked the growth of tabloid journalism, a legacy about which Wallace was more than a little ambivalent.
Belkin has managed to acquire an impressive number of clips from throughout Wallace’s career, including both interviews he conducted and those he gave. Not surprisingly, Wallace was much less comfortable being interviewed than conducting interviews, but like all good journalists, he would never shy away from uncomfortable truths.
In the beginning, Wallace had to fight to win the acceptance and respect of his journalistic peers and of the public. Even after he won that respect—in spades—Wallace never stopped fighting.
What, When, Where
Mike Wallace is Here. Produced and directed by Avi Belkin. Opens August 2, 2019 at Ritz 5.