Photo credit: Bebeto Mathews/AP
By Jay Kernis
When you traveled with Mike Wallace, people noticed.
You could see them point or nod or smile. People were always coming up to him to pat him on the back and saying “Great job!” And I was always thinking Secret Service kinds of thoughts: "OK, I am here with a correspondent worth millions of dollars and if anything ever happened, it would be my responsibility--so I have to be prepared to throw myself in front of him if something crazy were to happen." I never went into a war zone with him-- just places like Austin or Phoenix or Boston. But now and then, he would seek trouble.
He had this habit, at least with me, of walking up to people on the street and grabbing the cigarette out of their mouths. He would do this especially with very attractive women. And as he held the cigarette in front of them, he’d say, “You’re so attractive. I thought you told me you were going to stop smoking!”
The victim always went from anger to shock to guilt to laughter in a matter of seconds. As they recognized Mike, they usually stammered something like: "I know, I know, I’ll try. I’ll really try to stop."
After I witnessed Mike do this the first time, fearing that someone might strike him before realizing who he was, I asked, “Except for talking with beautiful women, why do you do that?”
He said, “You’ve got to understand: in the early days of broadcasting, I spent a lot of time telling people to smoke, even saying it was beneficial to them. I smoked on TV and sold a lot of Parliaments.”
Mike may have terrorized a few TV producers along the way, but he obviously did a lot of nice things for people.
We were shooting a stand-up for a story on an African-American Harvard graduate who said he was racially-profiled. This is a scene in a story where a correspondent is talking directly to the audience—and because we didn’t have images of the actual arrest, Mike would explain it on the corner where it happened. Mike and I were standing at Broadway and 96th Street in New York City, waiting for the cameraman to find the perfect position. While the photographer set up, an ambulance pulled over and the driver got out, approached us and handed Mike what appeared to be a real Emergency Medical Services jacket. He said, “I’ve been trying to get this to you for years. Please have it.”
“Why?” Mike asked, obviously puzzled.
The emergency worker, a tough-looking guy, suddenly became emotional. He explained that he had met Mike a few years ago, on the street, just like this, when he was taping something. “We started talking and I told you that I was having trouble with depression. And you insisted that I go see a doctor and take care of myself. Well, I did and I’m better now and I’ve always wanted to thank you. I’ve been driving around with this jacket, just in case I ever saw you again.”
Mike was very open about his own depression, possibly triggered by accusations of libel against him and CBS and a lawsuit that followed over the coverage of Gen. William Westmoreland and the Vietnam War. Mike not only appeared in a public service announcement that ran on CBS, he talked about depression on 60 Minutes and with Larry King. He said he had even considered suicide by taking pills.
Fact is, he gave people a lot of individual attention. I was sitting in his office editing a script with him and he took a phone call. After a few seconds, he hand-signaled that it would be a few minutes, but that I should just stay there. He mostly listened and then said, “But you’re depressed--you’ve got to go see a doctor. Take out a pen—I’m going to give you a name and a phone number and I’m going to check with him that you’ve made an appointment.” This happened more than once.
He also paid a lot of attention to his two “depression buddies,” columnist Art Buchwald and novelist William Styron. We had finished shooting an interview with a Harvard professor and were in a cab, returning to Logan airport. When we passed of one Boston’s big hospitals, Mike said that he knew Styron was in there, wasn’t doing well and he just had to see him. I said, “Mike, we’re in the middle of the highway and we’ve got to make a plane. You can’t even see the hospital entrance from here.” Mike asked the driver to pull over and as he escaped the cab, he shouted, “I know the place. I’ll make it!” And I watched this man in his late 80s, bounding across what looked like a football field length of lawn. Of course, he not only comforted his friend, he also made the flight.
If Mike had a bad day, he never brought it to the office. I mean, he never missed an opportunity to argue with Don Hewitt, the program’s creator and executive producer—but that was just to get his blood going. Mostly, he had the energy and curiosity of a cub reporter—hungry for the next story. There were those early morning calls as 5:30: “Did you see what’s in the paper today?”
Twelve years ago we were shooting another stand-up. A middle-aged man walked up to Mike, handed him a piece of paper and said, “I have always really admired your work. Mr. Cronkite, could I please have your autograph?” I looked at Mike. Mike looked at me and winked. He took the paper and wrote, “With best regards to a loyal fan, Walter Cronkite.”
I hope the fan has saved it.
Editor's note: Jay Kernis is a producer at Rock Center with Brian Williams. He spent 14 years at CBS News, five years with 60 Minutes.