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Mike Wallace dead: ’60 Minutes’ legend was 93

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Wallace in 2006 (AP/Bebeto Matthews)

Mike Wallace, the legendary CBS News broadcaster, interviewer and "60 Minutes" icon, has died, the network said Sunday. He was 93.

Wallace, whose "probing, brazen style made his name synonymous with the tough interview -- a style he practically invented for television more than half a century ago" died "peacefully" on Saturday night, surrounded by family in New Canaan, Conn., CBS said.

"It is with tremendous sadness that we mark the passing of Mike Wallace," Les Moonves, CBS Corp. president and CEO, said in a statement. "His extraordinary contribution as a broadcaster is immeasurable and he has been a force within the television industry throughout its existence. His loss will be felt by all of us at CBS."

"All of us at CBS News and particularly at 60 Minutes owe so much to Mike," Jeff Fager, CBS News chairman, said in a statement of his own. "Without him and his iconic style, there probably wouldn't be a 60 Minutes. There simply hasn't been another broadcast journalist with that much talent. It almost didn't matter what stories he was covering, you just wanted to hear what he would ask next. Around CBS he was the same infectious, funny and ferocious person as he was on TV. We loved him and we will miss him very much."

Morley Safer, Wallace's longtime colleague, remembered him in a video tribute posted on CBS' website.

"For half a century, he took on corrupt politicians, scam artists and bureaucratic bumblers," Safer said. "His visits were preceded by the four dreaded words: Mike Wallace is here."

Wallace "took to heart the old reporter's pledge to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," Safer continued. "He characterized himself as 'nosy and insistent.' So insistent, there were very few 20th century icons who didn't submit to a Mike Wallace interview. He lectured Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, on corruption. He lectured Yassir Arafat on violence. He asked the Ayatollah Khoumeini if he were crazy. He traveled with Martin Luther King (whom Wallace called his hero). He grappled with Louis Farrakhan. And he interviewed Malcolm X shortly before his assassination."

Among the political and cultural icons to be interviewed by Wallace: Ronald and Nancy Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonard Bernstein, Johnny Carson, Luciano Pavarotti, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Salvador Dali, and Barbra Streisand.

"Mike Wallace didn't interview people," the Associated Press' Frazier Moore wrote. "He interrogated them. He cross-examined them. Sometimes he eviscerated them."

Wallace retired in 2006. His last appearance on "60 Minutes" was in 2008, when he interviewed Roger Clemens.

But he was slowed by heart surgery later that year.

According to the New York Times, Wallace was "noticeably absent" at the memorial service for colleague Andy Rooney in January. (Rooney died in November.)

And in a recent interview with Playboy, his son, Fox News' Chris Wallace, said his father's health had deteriorated.

"He's in a facility in Connecticut, Wallace said. "Physically, he's okay. Mentally, he's not. He still recognizes me and knows who I am, but he's uneven. The interesting thing is, he never mentions '60 Minutes.' It's as if it didn't exist. It's as if that part of his memory is completely gone. The only thing he really talks about is family--me, my kids, my grandkids, his great-grandchildren. There's a lesson there. This is a man who had a fabulous career and for whom work always came first. Now he can't even remember it."

As news of Wallace's death spread, the outpouring of remembrances from his peers was immediate.

"Mike's energy and nerve paced everyone at '60 Minutes,'" Diane Sawyer, "ABC World News" anchor and Wallace's former "60 Minutes" colleague, said Sunday. "His was the defining spirit of the show. He bounded through the halls with joy at the prospect of the new, the true, the unexpected."

"I am so sad," Larry King said on CNN. "I know it was a ripe old age, but there was no one like him. I spent three or four hours with him at his apartment last year. I know he was sent to a home. He was suffering from dementia. It was sad to see. We'll never see his likes again."

Wallace was unhappy with his portrayal in "The Insider," 1999 film about CBS' controversial decision to kill a 1995 "60 Minutes" interview with tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand over fears of a lawsuit. (Wallace was played by Christopher Plummer.)

"We cannot broadcast what critical information about tobacco, addiction and public health (Wigand) might be able to offer," Wallace later told viewers, adding: "We were dismayed that the management at CBS had seen fit to give in to perceived threats of legal action."

In 1968, a few months before the launch of "60 Minutes," Wallace said he turned down an offer to be Richard Nixon's press secretary, according to the Times. "I thought very, very seriously about it," Wallace told the paper. "I regarded him with great respect. He was savvy, smart, hard working."

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Fox News chief Roger Ailes, a former Nixon strategist, told an anecdote about Wallace on his network on Sunday:

"Well, I'll tell you a secret. Many, many years ago, Richard Nixon said to me that that guy Wallace is okay. And I thought, gee, that's odd coming from him. Wonder what that's about. And it turns out that once Pat Nixon, who was very shy and very retiring and didn't like to be around the press, got trapped in an outdoor spot somewhere against a fence in the pack of journalists who you know were sort of shouting questions at her and everything else. And she obviously was quite uncomfortable. And apparently, Mike walked through the crowd of journalists, took her by the elbow and walked her out, and got her out of there. And somehow the family saw that on television. And so they never really disliked Mike. They knew Mike Wallace had a heart."

CBS will dedicate a special edition of "60 Minutes" to Wallace on April 15.

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