Mike Wallace worked full-time until he was 88. Then he went part-time. “I’m not the retiring type,” he explained.
Why is it so astonishing and unusual that someone would keep working as long as possible? Wallace, the 60 Minutes correspondent who died last weekend at age 93, had found a job he loved doing. Why leave?
Sticking a microphone in the face of world leaders and possible wrongdoers and asking the tough questions in his trademark skeptical tone brought Wallace enormous satisfaction. “I had found my bliss,” he said, recalling when he first interviewed newsmakers on a 1956 TV show called News Beat
, in a video interview for his obituary in The New York Times
, pre-recorded in 2006.
That bliss also brought him fame and fortune. 60 Minutes first went on the air on CBS in 1968 with Wallace as one of its regular reporters. The show soon became, and has remained, TV’s premiere primetime news magazine program. A ratings blockbuster, it brings significant revenue to CBS, and the network pays the show’s stars accordingly.
60 Minutes has always been a place where its staff could grow old, and then some. Founding producer Don Hewitt presided over the program until only five years before he died, at age 86, in 2009. Cranky commentator Andy Rooney retired just one month before his death, at 92, last fall — and even after he left, he had an open invitation to come back on air anytime to tell America what was bugging him.
More than any other show on TV (except maybe Golden Girls), 60 Minutes has resisted ageism. Take a look at the advanced years of its current roster of staff correspondents: Steve Kroft is 66; Lesley Stahl, 70; Bob Simon, 70; Morley Safer, 80. Even young-by-comparison Scott Pelley, who’s also the network’s evening news anchor, is 54.
And that’s refreshing. These are folks who’ve been around and know what they’re doing. It’s not their first time at the rodeo.
Mike Wallace didn’t start out as a serious newsman. He spent years as a jack of all trades on radio and TV, serving as an actor, an announcer, a game show host (including The Big Surprise and Who Pays?) and even a pitchman for Phillip Morris cigarettes. But then, after the accidental death of an adult son in 1962 (he fell off a cliff in Greece), Wallace decided he needed to do stories that mattered. He joined CBS News in 1963 as a correspondent, covering politics and the Vietnam War, then signed on with 60 Minutes.
For the next four decades, he had a home where he was valued and made substantive contributions. During the course of his 60 Minutes career, he grilled nearly every U.S. president and many other heads of state. To keep it fun, he also contributed profiles of violinist Itzhak Perlman, conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein, talk show host Johnny Carson, and other figures in the arts and popular culture.
There was no mandatory retirement at 65. There was no, “Gee, Mike, wouldn’t you be happier slowing down?” His co-workers knew the answer and, given the length of their own stays with the program both in front of and behind the camera, clearly felt the same way.
At a time when older workers are being pushed out the door with increasing frequency and are finding themselves unable to land new jobs if they start looking, 60 Minutes displays a laudatory commitment to experience and senior sagacity.
Having said all that, ironically enough, when Wallace’s mind started to go very near the end, his son Chris Wallace, 64 (who is himself the anchor on Fox News Sunday
), said in an interview published last December in Playboy
that his aged father now never talked about work. “The interesting thing is, he never mentions 60 Minutes
,” the younger Wallace said of his dad. “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.”
And so there are several lessons here for all of us to learn. If you enjoy your work and find it fulfilling, as Wallace absolutely did, do it for as long and as well as you can. But always remember that, in the end, it’s family that matters most.
This Sunday, at 7 p.m. Eastern time, 60 Minutes will devote a special edition of the program to remembering Wallace.
By Leah Rozen
Leah Rozen, a former film critic for People magazine, is a freelance writer for The New York Times, More and Parade.
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