Trailblazing ‘Today’ Host, Journalist Was 93 – The Hollywood Reporter
Barbara Walters, the glass-ceiling-shattering newswoman whose intimate television interviews with celebrities and world figures blended show business and journalism and induced many a tear, has died. She was 93.
Walters, the first female co-host of the Today show, the first evening news anchorwoman in broadcast history and a co-creator and co-host of The View, died Friday evening at her home in New York, ABC News announced.
Walters revealed in May 2013 that she would retire from journalism upon the conclusion of The View season in 2014. “I thought it was better to go when people are saying, ‘Why is she leaving?’ than, ‘Thank goodness she’s leaving!’” she said.
Yet Walters soldiered on with exclusive interviews, like one with Peter Rodger, the father of Elliot Rodger, the UC Santa Barbara student who killed seven people in May 2014.
Walters also was known for co-hosting the ABC news magazine program 20/20 with her former Today teammate Hugh Downs and for her annual 10 Most Fascinating People and Oscar specials that ran on the network for decades.
Walters made history on Oct. 4, 1976, when, after ending a 13-year stint on Today, she joined Harry Reasoner as co-anchor of the ratings-challenged ABC Evening News. The old-school news veteran was not pleased.
“We were a great failure,” she said. “He didn’t want a partner. It wasn’t that he disliked me. I was forced on him.” Incredibly, she did not meet with Reasoner before taking the job.
The terms of her deal, which she signed with ABC Entertainment president Fred Silverman, were lavish and unprecedented. Her five-year, $5 million contract, which included her hosting four one-hour primetime specials each year, made her the highest-paid newscaster in history. CBS’ Walter Cronkite was earning about $400,000 at the time.
Half of Walters’ salary came out of the entertainment division’s budget, lending credence to the criticism that ABC News had tilted toward show business. When he heard what Walters was getting paid, then-CBS News president Richard Salant asked, “Is Barbara a journalist, or is she Cher?”
“I got terrible press,” Walters, who maintained that she was making more money at NBC at the time, said in a 2000 interview with the Archive of American Television. “It was like I was some chorus girl who had come out of Radio City. There were terrible cartoons of me. I didn’t come from the Associated Press or United Press. I was raised in television, and I was a woman. And here was this wonderful, grizzled Harry Reasoner.”
Said former ABC newsman Sam Donaldson, “It was a dysfunctional duo, with a man sitting there looking down his nose at a woman.”
At the low point of her career, she said she was encouraged by letters she received from female viewers as well as by a telegram from John Wayne that read, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
Walters and Reasoner remained on the air until July 7, 1978, when Roone Arledge, who had recently added news to his sports portfolio at ABC, replaced the pair with a three-anchor format headed by London-based Peter Jennings.
“I began then to work my way back,” she said.
The fiercely competitive, always impeccably dressed Walters soon became the epitome of the TV-journalist-as-celebrity, overcoming a speech impediment — which made her the object of a “Baba Wawa” parody by Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live — to sustain a remarkable career with a series of landmark “gets.”
The first Barbara Walters Special aired in 1976 when she interviewed President-elect Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, for the first half of the show. For the second half, she chatted with Barbra Streisand and her boyfriend at the time, producer Jon Peters.
Her September 1995 interview with paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve — his first since his devastating spinal-cord injury — was one of 20/20’s highest-rated programs. “For years to millions of moviegoers, Christopher Reeve was Superman. I think he’s more Superman now,” she said as she introduced the piece, for which she won a Peabody Award.
A great listener, Walters scored another famous get with her March 1999 sit-down with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The two-hour special attracted 74 million viewers, the most ever for a news interview. (By contrast, Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Lance Armstrong in January 2013 attracted 3.2 million viewers on the first night).
In the interview with the TV Archive, Walters said another network had offered Lewinsky as much as $5 million to get her to talk (ABC didn’t pay her, she said). “I told her that the most important thing is not the money, it’s trying to get your name back,” she recalled.
And in an infamous 1981 chat, she followed up a comment made by Katharine Hepburn to ask the legendary actress, “What kind of tree are you?” The answer: “I hope I’m not a Dutch elm, because then I’m withering. I guess everyone would like to be an oak tree.” Walters was ridiculed for the question — the only time she asked such a thing — and later admitted it was one of her biggest interviewing mistakes.
She visited with controversial boxer Mike Tyson and then-wife Robin Givens (“Life with him is pure hell,” the actress told Walters), Lucille Ball (“I married a loser,” she said of Desi Arnaz) and the parents of JonBenet Ramsey. Walters did the final interviews with Bing Crosby and Wayne (the Duke entered the hospital the next day and died soon afterward).
Among the other celebrities she interviewed were a painfully shy Fred Astaire, Ingrid Bergman, Truman Capote, Mamie Eisenhower, Judy Garland (the actress-singer made her wait four or five hours), Audrey Hepburn, Candice Bergen, Diana Ross, Monica Seles, Michael Jackson, Roseanne Barr, Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy, George Clooney, Kate Gosselin and Honey Boo-Boo, to name just a few.
Often, those interviewed — among them Grace Kelly, Winfrey, Richard Pryor, Patrick Swayze and Ellen DeGeneres — would well up. In 2008, Walters said she always asked about her subjects’ childhoods “because that’s revealing, and they’d remember a parent or someone who’d died. That was before every celebrity getting out of rehab would cry. Now I say, ‘Don’t you dare cry!’ ”
Her power to bring tears was legendary. During a November 1993 episode of the CBS sitcom Murphy Brown, FYI executive producer Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud) appeals to the competitive side of Murphy (Bergen) when he prods his star reporter to pursue a tawdry story about a fictional Beltway madam, Holly Adams.
“Are you prepared to walk away now, never knowing?” he says. “Or worse, turn on your TV tomorrow night and see Holly Adams sitting with Barbara Walters, crying her eyes out as Barbara hands her Kleenex after Kleenex … wouldn’t it be great just once if it were Babs who was doing the crying?”
Don Mischer, who produced many of her specials, said in 2008 that “there were many people who agreed to talk with Barbara and probably said to themselves, ‘I’m not going to let myself go emotionally,’ but Barbara was so good the way she interviewed them, it was pretty much inevitable.”
Walters’ subjects also included a list of heavyweight world figures not accustomed to sitting down for interviews: Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin together in Jerusalem in 1977 (she outmaneuvered Cronkite for the historic occasion, accomplished when Begin said to Sadat, “Let’s do it for the sake of our good friend Barbara”), Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti and Fidel Castro in Cuba.
“I said [to Muammar Gaddafi], there are people who think you are crazy. I asked Vladimir Putin if he ever killed anybody,” Walters said on Late Show With David Letterman in May 2013. “I have no courage in everyday life, but somehow when I’m interviewing people, I can ask those questions.”
Barbara Jill Walters was born in Boston on Sept. 25, 1929, the second daughter of theatrical producer and entertainment impresario Lou Walters (he grew one Latin Quarter nightclub in Boston into a chain) and a homemaker. (Her sister, Jackie, was mentally disabled and died in 1985.) She often encountered celebrities as a kid.
Her family moved from Boston to New York, then to Miami (where she graduated from high school) and back to New York before her father lost the family’s money. She graduated from the all-women’s Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, with a B.A. in English and realized she had to help support the family.
Walters landed a job in New York on a WPIX-TV women’s show that featured a viewers’ letters segment called, “Answer Your Male.” For CBS’ Good Morning With Will Rogers Jr., she wrote segments (Andy Rooney and Dick Van Dyke also were on the show) and once appeared on the air in a bathing suit when a model didn’t show up.
Walters then worked for a PR company that handled Today as one of its accounts. When the show’s lone female writer left, she was hired in 1961 by host Dave Garroway to fill the slot. She did some reporting and got on the air when NBC fired “Today Girl” Maureen O’Sullivan; a day in the life of a nun was a typical story for Walters. A contract called for her going on the air three times a week for 13 weeks.
She covered Jackie Kennedy’s trip to India in 1962, the funeral of the first lady’s husband a year later and Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972.
As Walters’ stature grew, Today host Frank McGee insisted on a policy in the studio. “If there was an interview from Washington, I could not ask a question until he had asked three,” she recalled. “That went all the way to the president of NBC, who agreed that that’s the way it should be.
“The only way I could do an interview of great substance was if I got it myself. That’s when I began to telephone and to write letters. I could do it outside the studio [and do it her way]. That’s when I did Henry Kissinger (newly arrived in Washington as National Security Adviser).”
When McGee left the show (he would die of bone cancer days later), Walters in April 1974 was offered the job with the official title of “co-host.”
“Here was a woman doing the same thing a man was doing,” Walters recalled, “and it was OK.”
While working at Today, Walters also doubled as a co-host on an audience-participation series, the syndicated Not for Women Only.
Not for Women Only would serve as an inspiration for the ABC daytime talk show The View, which Walters launched in 1997 with Bill Geddie. “One day, the network came to me and said, ‘Do you have any ideas for a daytime television show?’ I said I had this idea for a show: different women, different generations.”
Along the way (and through many hairstyles), Walters earned more than 40 Primetime, Daytime and News & Documentary Emmy nominations, winning five times. She was inducted into the TV Academy’s Hall of Fame in 1990 and received a Lucy Award from Women in Film in 1998, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007 and Lifetime Achievement Awards for her TV work in 2000 and 2009.
Walters had three husbands. Her first marriage, to Robert Katz, ended in an annulment. She was married to Broadway producer Lee Guber from 1963-76 until their divorce and to Lorimar studio founder Merv Adelson from 1986-92.
She admitted to having an affair with Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke — the first African American popularly elected to the Senate — for several years in the 1970s, and she also dated former Sen. John Warner of Virginia (after his divorce from Elizabeth Taylor), future Bear Stearns chairman Alan Greenberg and Alan Greenspan, who would become chairman of the Federal Reserve.
In 1968, she and Guber adopted a daughter, Jacqueline, who survives her.
Walters was honored in May 2014 when the ABC News building on West 66th Street in Manhattan was christened The Barbara Walters Building.
“I am so truly touched by this,” she said at the ceremony. “I want to make something very clear, that each and every one of you, from the desk assistants to the producers to the correspondents and anchors, each of you who walk through these doors every day … my name is going to be on this building, but the building belongs to you.”
Walters said she often was asked through the years what it takes for a woman to get ahead.
“Just work harder than everybody,” she said. “You are not going to get it by whining. You are not going to get it by shouting. You are not going to get it by quitting. You are going to get it by being there. I think that’s what happened with me.”