Wednesday, August 19, 2009

60 Minutes Of Fame

There've been some terrific, mano-a-mano battles and grudge matches over the years.

Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

Leroy and Loretta Lockhorn. Kate and Jon Gosselin.

George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin.

Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace.

That last one has seen its last battle, sadly.

Hewitt, the creator and longtime executive producer of "60 Minutes", is gone. Passed away at age 86.

The year has been unkind. We've lost more than our usual share of celebrities and notables, it seems.

Hewitt created "60 Minutes" in 1968---a year filled with tension and turmoil---and continued as the show's executive producer until 2004, at age 81.

And it was he and one of the show's hosts, Mike Wallace, who had some infamous battles.

Usually they'd either occur in the edit room, where Hewitt and Wallace butted heads over which sound bites to use, or in the "war room"---a TV term for the brainstorming session venue, where ideas for stories were pitched.

Expletives would fly. Observers feared some of the "discussions" would turn physically violent.

But Hewitt and Wallace had great respect for each other, and were famously able to separate their off-air debates from the time they spent together publicly.

“He had a knack," Hewitt once said of Wallace, "for getting things out of people that others never got out of them — niches and hidden moments that they never shared with anyone. But they did with Mike.”


Don Hewitt: 1922-2009


Hewitt's career at CBS started in 1948, and he was the first director of Edward R. Murrow's "See it Now" show of the 1950s, which was a groundbreaking documentary program.

It was a 37-year-old Hewitt who directed the legendary Richard Nixon-John Kennedy televised debate of 1960. There's film footage of Hewitt, prior to air, overseeing the lighting and camera placement.

The lighting and set selection were key, because the ill Nixon looked pale, gaunt and haggard against the off-white backdrop. These were the days of black-and-white TV, so Nixon's pasty face looked even worse than had the images been in color.

Folks who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won, for the most part. Those who watched it on TV, with the tanned and fit-looking Kennedy coming into their living rooms, thought JFK won overwhelmingly.

TV news came of age the weekend of JFK's murder in 1963, but the power of the medium when it came to influencing people's opinions first bobbed to the surface in the wake of the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate. Make no mistake about it.

"60 Minutes" was another groundbreaking program, resonating far more than "See it Now."

For Hewitt's program took its cameras to the subject, rather than the subject traipsing to the studio. And that invasion, regardless that it was agreed to, added a rich texture to the show.

But then "60 Minutes" began invading unannounced, or certainly not by invite. The show expanded beyond simple yet compelling profiles to a more in-your-face, investigative style.

In any given hour, viewers could be treated to an interview with Johnny Carson at his home, a "gotcha!" piece on a crooked businessman, a rousing segment of "Point/Counterpoint", and an airy "Few Minutes with Andy Rooney."

All while the iconic stopwatch tick-tocked its way through the program, going into and coming out of commercials.

People sometimes forget that the purpose of "60 Minutes" was to be presented as a television "magazine", complete with stories that were introduced with a mock magazine design behind the hosts.

There would be no "60 Minutes" without Don Hewitt. Which means there'd be no "Nightline" or "20/20" or "Dateline" or "48 Hours."

The world would likely have never heard of Morley Safer or Wallace or many others; even though they were good journalism people, they may not have gotten a break if Hewitt didn't put them on the air.

“Confrontation is not a dirty word," Hewitt said back in the day. "Sometimes it's the best kind of journalism as long you don't confront people just for the sake of a confrontation.”

Somehow, the last half of that quote got lost in the shuffle over the years.

But Hewitt was wrong about one thing.

"I plan," he said, "to die at my desk."

But he gave it a good run, didn't he?

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