Barbara Walters, Trailblazing Broadcast Journalist, Dies at 93
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’ death was announced Friday night by ABC News on its World News Tonight With David Muir broadcast. There were no details about her death immediately.
She was 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.
Walters announced in May 2013 that she would retire from journalism upon the conclusion of The View season in 2014. She stated, “It was better to go when people say, ‘Why’s she leaving?'” than, Thank goodness she’s going!
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. Walters was not happy.
She said, “We were a great fail.” He didn’t want to be with a partner. It wasn’t because he didn’t like me. He forced me to do it.” She didn’t meet Reasoner before accepting the job.
Her deal with ABC Entertainment president Fred Silverman was extravagant and unprecedented. Her five-year, $5million contract included hosting four one-hour primetime specials each season. It made her the highest-paid newscaster ever. CBS’ Walter Cronkite was earning about $400,000 at the time.
Walters received half of his salary from the entertainment division budget. This lends credence to criticisms that ABC News was biased toward show business. Richard Salant, then-CBS News president, asked: “Is Barbara a journalist or 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 almost like I was a radio city chorus girl. There were horrible cartoons of me. I wasn’t born from the Associated Press, or United Press. I was raised in television and was a woman. This was Harry Reasoner .”
, a grizzled and charming man.
Sam Donaldson, a former ABC newsman, said, “It was dysfunctional duo with a man sitting down there looking down at a woman .”
She said that she was encouraged at a low point in her career by letters from female viewers and a telegram by John Wayne, which read: “Don’t let any bastards get to you
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.
She said, “I started then to work my back,”
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. She chatted with Barbra and Jon Peters, her boyfriend at the time.
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 many years, Christopher Reeve was Superman to millions of moviegoers. She said, “I think he’s more Superman right now,” as she introduced the piece for which she received 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).
Walters stated that Lewinsky had been offered $5 million by another network to get her to speak (ABC did not pay her). “I told her that it wasn’t the money that was important, but trying to get your name back,” she said.
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. Walters was ridiculed for asking the question, which was the first time she had ever asked it. She later admitted that it was one of her worst interviewing mistakes.
She met with Mike Tyson, controversial boxer, and Robin Givens (“Life with him is pure hell,” she told Walters), Lucille Bal (“I married a loser,” her comments about Desi Arnaz), and the parents of JonBenet Ramsey. Walters conducted the final interviews with Wayne and Bing Crosby. The Duke died shortly afterward.
She interviewed Ingrid Bergman and Truman Capote as well as Fred Astaire, Ingrid Bergman and Mamie Eisenhower.
Many times, interviewees — including Winfrey and Richard Pryor, Patrick Swayze, Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres – would raise their eyebrows. 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. This was before celebrities would cry when they got out of rehab. I say, “Don’t you dare to cry!” “
Her ability to bring out the 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.
He asks, “Are you ready to walk away now and never knowing?” Or worse, you can turn on the TV tomorrow night to see Holly Adams crying as Barbara Walters hands her Kleenex after Kleenex. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Babs 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 told Muammar Gaddafi that there are people who think you’re crazy. I asked Vladimir Putin if he ever killed anybody,” Walters said on Late Show With David Letterman in May 2013. “I don’t have the courage to do everyday things, but when I interview people, I can ask them 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.) As a child, she was often surrounded by celebrities.
Her family moved from Boston, Massachusetts to New York, then to Miami, where she graduated high school, and then back to New York after her father lost their family’s money. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the all-women’s Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. She realized that she had to support her family by learning English.
Walters was offered a job at WPIX-TV in New York. She wrote segments for CBS’ Good Morning with Will Rogers Jr .
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 was on the air when NBC fired Maureen O’Sullivan (Today Girl). Walters’ typical story was about a day in the lives of nuns. 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. She recalled that “If there were an interview from Washington I could not ask one question until he had posed three questions.” “That conversation went all the way up to the president of NBC who agreed that it was the right way.
“It was the only way I could conduct an interview of great substance. It was only if I had it myself. That’s when I started to phone and write letters. I could do it outside of the studio and do it my way. That’s when Henry Kissinger (newly arrived at Washington as National Security Advisor ) was done.
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 up to me and asked if I had any ideas for a daytime TV show. I replied that I had an idea for a show featuring different women from different generations . Walters launched The View2000 in 66 with Bill Geddie.
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 was married to three men. Robert Katz was her first husband. Walters’ second marriage 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.
She said that she was deeply touched by the ceremony. “I want you to know that I am going to be there, but it is your building .”
Walters stated that she was often asked what it takes to make a woman successful over the years.
She said, “Just work harder than everyone else.” You won’t get it if you whine. It is not possible to get it by whining. Quitting is not the way to go. It is possible to achieve it only by being there. That’s what happened to me .”
This article was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter.
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