60 Minutes Special Don Hewitt August 23 2009
(CBS) This has not been a happy summer for those of us who work at CBS News: last month Walter Cronkite died, and this past week we lost Don Hewitt, the man who created 60 Minutes 41 years ago.
Don was 86, but in his head and in his heart he was a kid. Words like "passion" and "enthusiasm" are too weak to describe this human dynamo.
As correspondent Morley Safer explains, Don was his boss for most of the 45 years he has worked at the network and he was not an easy man to please. But when you did please him, you were on top of the world. And so was he.
He was also a thorn in the side of his corporate bosses, though he liked to describe himself as a pain in the ass.
And he was madly in love with broadcast journalism.
We take a look at Don Hewitt - this founder, producer and above all, ringmaster of what he regarded as the greatest show on earth.
"I once said to CBS, 'In my next contract I want a gun, and a whip and a chair,' because it's like being in a cage full of tigers. And there are temperaments. Not the least of which is mine," Don Hewitt once said.
Ringmaster and lion tamer - Don became a show unto himself. Since the very beginning of television news more than six decades ago, he lived by a deceptively simple motto: "It's four little words. Tell me a story. And that's all we do. Tell 'em a story," he explained.
Years before 60 Minutes, he was at Edward R. Murrow's side as television expanded its reach to broadcast live, from coast to coast.
He produced the very first televised presidential debate, Kennedy vs. Nixon, in 1960.
He was with Walter Cronkite the day John F. Kennedy was shot.
And with 60 Minutes, he revolutionized broadcast news, dispatching what he called his "team of tigers" to the four corners of the globe to carry out that four-word mandate: Tell me a story.
"There is no place on Earth that you haven’t been," Hewitt said when the broadcast turned 25. "And there's nobody on Earth that you haven't met. …And that is the great value of what we do, I think."
He was, in fact, the boy wonder of CBS News, and remained the awestruck kid well past retirement age. He was opinionated, outrageous, with a quick wit and a short fuse.
"The only problem is that when you've been around as long as I have, you get to be kind of a pain in the ass," Hewitt once said.
And as his friends and colleagues will tell you, on balance, the pleasure of Don's company was mostly worth the pain.
"I mean, he put on a show in the control room. And it was just wonderful. It was hypnotic," Phil Scheffler remembered, who worked at Don's side for over half a century.
60 Minutes Executive Producer Jeff Fager remembers his first meeting with Hewitt. "I remember it well. He said, 'Listen kid. All you need to do is bring us good stories.'"
Fager succeeded Don in 2004 as executive producer, and he remembers all too well being the new kid on the block, 20 years ago: screening one of his first 60 Minutes stories for the ringmaster.
It was a somewhat dry report on the Polish economy.
"The first thing he said was, 'Where do you want it kid, right between the eyes?' He hated it. And what really was amazing is a couple of hours later he called and he said, 'I have some ideas for how we can make this story better.' And he did," Fager remembered.
"He was like P.T. Barnum in the sense that he would bring the circus truck to town every time he got to talk to you," actor Alan Alda said.
Don called Alda his best friend; Alda says that even after hours, Don talked constantly about work. "Because it excited him so much that he was, I think he was still a boy who was amazed at his success."
The boy grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., 45 minutes from Broadway. Fifteen cents would buy him a Saturday afternoon of cartoons, newsreels and melodramas. The movies got under his skin and stayed there.
"He once said to me that when he goes to a Western movie, he comes out walking bowlegged," Safer remembered, laughing.
"He told us many times how when he was in the war, he had seen so many war movies that when he was finally standing on the ship, and the enemy planes were coming at him, he thought 'Where's the music?'" Alda added.
The movies gave him his role models: rascals who had the moxie to beat the system during the Great Depression.
"I never knew whether I wanted to be Julian Marsh, the Broadway producer on 42nd Street, or Hildy Johnson, the reporter in Front Page," Hewitt said.
Johnson came from the newspaper world, just as Don's father did. It was a whiskey soaked jungle of snappy talk and scooping the competition.
And impresario Julian Marsh in 42nd Street was surrounded by bright lights and Broadway babes - Don's kind of world.
"We always thought if Don Hewitt went into Broadway, he would have been just as big and just as successful," Fager said. "I mean, he had that way, he had that showmanship."
In 1948, CBS put on its first TV newscast; Don was 25, with some wartime reporting experience under his belt. Somebody suggested he check out the CBS News studio, upstairs at Grand Central Station.
"And I walked in. I couldn't believe it. You know, there are lights and cameras and makeup people and it looked like a Hollywood set. And I fell in love," Hewitt remembered.
And the best thing was: no longer did he have to choose between being ace reporter Hildy Johnson or Broadway star maker Julian Marsh.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, in television you can be both of them.' And I got hired," Hewitt remembered.
Soon, he was producing Douglas Edwards' newscast, the forerunner of the CBS Evening News. There were no satellites, no computers - nothing much except huge, bulky cameras and Don's manic enthusiasm.
"It wasn't very good, but it was respectable. I always thought it was the infancy of television. Like we were making those shows out of Play-Doh," Hewitt said when the Evening News turned 50.
"Don has described those early days as playing with Play-Doh. Kind of making it up as you go along," Safer remarked.
"No question about that. There were no signposts. No rules," Scheffler agreed. "Nobody had any experience in this before. And so he really was the inventor of the kind of television news that we do now."
In the summer of 1956, the ocean liner Andrea Doria collided with a ship off Nantucket.
Don, Doug Edwards and a cameraman flew off to have a look. The other networks had already come and gone, beating them to the first pictures of the crippled ship, dead in the water.
"I said, 'Well, what the hell. We're here. Let's go anyway,'" Hewitt remembered. "We're flying over the Andrea Doria, it turns over, and like a big dead elephant, it sank right beneath us."
"Dumb luck. By being late, we got the story," he added.
Hewitt would do just about anything to get the story and shaft the competition. When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited a farm in Coon Rapids, Iowa in 1959, Don put one over on NBC.
"He stole their truck, their video truck," Alda explained. "And drove it into the middle of a corn field, where no one could find it. Now that's not Mr. Nice Guy, you know. He did return it, eventually."
But Hewitt clashed often with CBS News President Fred Friendly, who found him too brash and too unpredictable. In 1965, Friendly figured out a way to get Don off the Evening News; Don thought it was a promotion.
"His wife told me later that he came home and said, told her the story about how Friendly had come to see him and said, 'You know, Don, this Evening News is not big enough for you. We're gonna find really great projects for you to do.' And his wife said to him: 'Idiot. You just got fired,'" Scheffler said.
"It was devastating at the time. You know, I had my legs cut off," Hewitt remembered.
He remained at CBS, but sought solace out on his beloved beach. Next to television, he worshiped the sun and his kids. He produced a few earnest documentaries, but hungered after something with a little more punch.
"He got bored easily, is the problem," Scheffler said.
And out of that boredom came Don's greatest idea: 60 Minutes. In a sense, it should have been called "15 minutes." Don couldn't sit still for anything longer than that.
"It's really a reflection, I think, of his attention span," Scheffler said. "His attention span was 15 minutes. And so he said 'We'll do a program that has three 15-minute stories on it."
It began in the fall of 1968, without, at first, Phil Scheffler.
"I turned him down. I said, 'You know, Don, I don't think your show's gonna be serious enough.' And I said, 'Besides, you know, it's not gonna last very long,'" Scheffler remembered.
That was more than 40 years ago. Scheffler eventually came on board, as did any number of oddballs.
"Don managed to attract the best people in the business. And he kept this ensemble full of crazy egos all working towards the same end," Fager said.
Asked what he means by crazy egos, Fager said, "More like tigers in a cage, and every once in a while they'd jump out of their cages and Don would have to figure out a way to coax them back in."
With Don cracking the whip, it was not a place for the fainthearted.
"I saw him fire the same producer three times in the halls," Fager recalled.
"He fired Mike [Wallace] at least 50 times," Safer added.
"Well, Mike probably deserved it," Fager joked.
Alan Alda wondered if all that high drama achieved any purpose.
"Was it successful in getting you to think on another level?" Alda asked.
"Oh, absolutely," Safer replied. "I think it made the pieces, the stories, in the final analysis, much leaner and much more direct."
"And would he turn out to be right?" Alda asked.
"Mainly he was right," Safer said, laughing.
But there were some rough moments in an otherwise brilliant career. In 1995, the then CBS management suppressed a 60 Minutes expose of the tobacco industry.
The story eventually was broadcast, after it was reported in The Wall Street Journal.
Though the tobacco story haunted him for years, Don continued masterminding the broadcast for another decade.
"His job was his life. And that's what made it so hard for him to give it up. In fact, he said quite publicly 'I wanna die at my desk,'" Fager said.
Don left the broadcast - reluctantly - in 2004, at age 81, and slowly made peace with the idea of having more time for the grandchildren. And of watching 60 Minutes not in the screening room, but in his own living room.
Asked what he thinks Hewitt's legacy is, Phil Scheffler said, "His legacy is 60 Minutes. There's no question. I mean, this was his shining, his crowning success."
Fager said, "It's a great legacy, this broadcast, and it hasn't strayed much from what he envisioned in the first place more than 40 years ago."
"He gave the country nourishment but in the form of, to a great extent in the form of entertainment. It wasn't like eating your broccoli. What he gave us was a good old-fashioned hot dog, but somehow it nourished us like broccoli," Alda added. "There is some kind of genius in that. He was able to fuse those two things."
News & Current Affairs
Aug 24, 2009, 21:56:15
Number of files