When I heard the news that the great Mike Wallace had died, my mind instantly flashed on my one encounter with the longtime CBS newsman, in 1996.
Wallace was in Minneapolis for some reason. I don’t remember the occasion, but I think it was a relatively happy one, meaning it could not have had anything to do with WCCO’s feature spot on “60 Minutes,” when the news magazine was reporting on WCCO’s bonehead play in its “iTeam” coverage of Northwest Airlines. Don’t even want to get into that.
I was a Channel 4000 web geek at the time, and when we found out that Don Shelby was going to record an on-camera interview with Mike Wallace, several of us rushed down to watch it happen. It was the meeting of one TV titan and another TV mini-titan. We didn’t want to miss it.
It turned out to be hilarious. I can’t reconstruct it well from memory. But I can describe it generally and give you some idea of a playful Mike Wallace in action.
The way TV interviews often work is that there is a single camera capturing all the elements and angles of an interview. They have to be recorded in succession, one at a time.
That means that the camera is pointing at the person being questioned during the entire time the interviewer asks the questions. So that was done; the camera recorded Wallace answering Shelby’s questions.
Then it turned around on Shelby, and captured Shelby repeating all the questions he had already asked Wallace.
When that was done, the ludicrous part – which is a frequent feature of TV interviews – took place. The camera had to capture Shelby’s supposed “reaction shots” to the answers that Mike Wallace had already given, now at least 15 or 20 minutes previously.
So the camera stayed on Shelby, from a point of view over Wallace’s shoulder. Bear in mind that none of the sound from this shot was intended to be used when the segment aired later that day. The idea was simply to capture a couple of frames of Shelby “reacting” to Wallace’s already-stated interview answers. In effect, the shot was really Shelby acting like he was reacting to Wallace, since Wallace had long since ceased to answer questions.
However, Wallace did stay in place, allowing Shelby to at least react to a real person in the room with him. Which is where the fun starts.
I wish I had recorded the encounter so I could repeat accurately what Wallace did at this point. But I have to rely on memory.
Wallace’s primary objective during this portion of the shoot was to make Shelby crack up and blow the shot. So while the camera was on Shelby, who was intent on looking appropriately interested and engaged in what Wallace said 20 minutes ago, Wallace began a blistering mock “60 Minutes”-styled interview of Don Shelby. I wish I remembered more of the questions. The one that I do remember went something like this, uttered in the grimmest tones that Wallace could conjure:
“So how do you respond to these charges of moral turpitude that have been leveled against you?”
They were all in that vein.
Shelby, bless his soul, must have known what was coming, because he withstood the barrage, continuing to look mildly engaged and interested throughout, until the director determined that enough footage had been captured. Then it was as if someone stuck a pin in two balloons. Laughter exploded from both men. And everyone else in the room.
What luck it was for me to have witnessed such a thing. Afterward, Wallace very kindly autographed the book I happened to be reading on my bus trips to and from work at the time: Woodward and Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men.” I said to him, “I know this book doesn’t have much to do with you, but I think you’ll understand why I’m asking you to sign it.” He smiled, took my pen and graciously signed a greeting.
I didn’t need to explain that it was because the book was the product of two journalists who asked the hard questions and doggedly followed the answers, just like Mike Wallace. Or that the book was the product of two overwhelmed young journalists who were living with the abject fear that Mike Wallace and CBS News would swoop in and beat them to punch on the Watergate story.
Rest in peace, Mike Wallace. And thanks for the memory.
Kevin Featherly is a freelance writer and editor in Bloomington. This piece first appeared on his “Featherly’s Kevblog.”