NEW YORK - Within five months of each other, two of the men who helped make "60 Minutes" the most distinctive news show on television have died.
First it was Andy Rooney, the cantankerous commentator who died last November, a month after delivering the last of his show-closing essays. Late Saturday night, it was Mike Wallace, the hard-charging interviewer who frequently led "60 Minutes" and gave it journalistic heft with a showman's flair.
Rooney made it to age 92. Wallace beat him by a year, although he spent the latter stage of his life in the New Canaan, Conn., care facility where he died.
"More than anyone else he was responsible for the continuing success of `60 Minutes,' "veteran correspondent Morley Safer, a longtime colleague and frequent competitor of Wallace's in chasing after big stories, said on Sunday's show. "We are all in his debt."
"60 Minutes" plans an extended tribute to Wallace next Sunday.
Wallace had such a fearsome reputation as an interviewer that "Mike Wallace is here to see you" were among the most dreaded words a newsmaker could hear.
Wallace didn't just interview people. He interrogated them. He cross-examined them. Sometimes he eviscerated them pitilessly. His weapons were many: thorough research, a cocked eyebrow, a skeptical "Come on" and a question so direct it took your breath away.
He was well aware that his reputation arrived at an interview before he did, said Jeff Fager, CBS News chairman and Wallace's long-time producer at "60 Minutes."
"He loved it," Fager said Sunday. "He loved that part of Mike Wallace. He loved being Mike Wallace. He loved the fact that if he showed up for an interview, it made people nervous. ... He knew, and he knew that everybody else knew, that he was going to get to the truth. And that's what motivated him."
Wallace made "60 Minutes" compulsively watchable, television's first newsmagazine that became appointment viewing on Sunday nights. His last interview, in January 2008, was with Roger Clemens on his alleged steroid use. Slowed by a triple bypass later that month and the ravages of time on a once-sharp mind, he retired from public life.
During the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, Wallace asked Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini — then a feared figure — what he thought about being called "a lunatic" by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Khomeini answered by predicting Sadat's assassination.
Late in his career, he interviewed Russian President Vladimir Putin, and challenged him: "This isn't a real democracy, come on!" Putin's aides tried fruitlessly to halt the interview.
In 1973, with the Watergate scandal growing, he sat with top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman and read a long list of alleged crimes, from money laundering to obstructing justice. "All of this," Wallace noted, "by the law-and-order administration of Richard Nixon."
The surly Ehrlichman could only respond: "Is there a question in there somewhere?"
In the early 1990s, Wallace reduced Barbra Streisand to tears as he scolded her for being "totally self-absorbed" when she was young and mocked her decades of psychoanalysis. "What is it she is trying to find out that takes 20 years?" Wallace wondered.
"He was hands down the best television interviewer ever," said Steve Kroft, his former "60 Minutes" colleague. "I can't think of anyone, besides (CBS legend Edward R.) Murrow, who had a greater influence in shaping television journalism."
"60 Minutes" pioneered the use of "ambush interviews," with reporter and camera crew corralling alleged wrongdoers in parking lots, hallways, wherever a comment — or at least a stricken expression — might be harvested from someone dodging reporters' phone calls. Wallace once went after a medical laboratory offering Medicaid kickbacks to doctors in this fashion.
They were phased out after founding executive producer Don Hewitt termed them "showbiz baloney." "Finally I said, `Hey, kid, maybe it's time to retire that trenchcoat,'" Hewitt recalled.
Wallace's late colleague Harry Reasoner once said, "There is one thing that Mike can do better than anybody else: With an angelic smile, he can ask a question that would get anyone else smashed in the face."