By: Frazier Moore
Here is a familiar sight: Mike Wallace on camera. He’s grilling Henry Kissinger on “the immediate issue that will decide the fate of our freedom, certainly ? and possibly even of our survival.”
But hold on: The video images are black and white, and both Wallace and Kissinger look awfully young.
In fact, this half-hour exchange aired a half-century ago, when the 35-year-old future secretary of state was still employed at Harvard University, and “60 Minutes” was a decade down the road for his 40-year-old inquisitor. As they talk, Topic A isn’t terrorism or global warming, but the Soviet threat.
It’s a remarkable glimpse into yesteryear, and it’s available on your computer screen ? along with some 60 other editions of “The Mike Wallace Interview,” many of them unseen since their original ABC broadcast.
The programs, which have just been put online by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, were donated by Wallace himself in the early 1960s.
They capture the essential Mike Wallace everyone would later come to know. They’re a time capsule unearthed from a pivotal moment.
They’re also a very entertaining treasury.
Click to the home page for “The Mike Wallace Interviews,” and ? with no muss or fuss, no sign-in required or ads to slog through ? scroll down the litany of personalities.
Along with Kissinger (and the 89-year-old Wallace, who retired from full-time duties at CBS News in 2006 and is currently recovering from bypass surgery), a handful of these figures remain with us today: actor Kirk Douglas, baseball Hall of Famer Bob Feller, former Sen. Charles Percy.
But whether alive or dead, familiar to the contemporary viewer or unknown, a high percentage of these interview subjects shed light on the world they inhabited and, even from that distance, they can shed light on our world, too.
Wallace interviewed the great architect and unbridled social critic Frank Lloyd Wright for two shows that aired in September 1957. The 88-year-old Wright, whose designs remain forever young, responded with equanimity to Wallace’s interrogation, which began not with architecture but in the realm of organized religion.
“Why organize it?” Wright said. “Didn’t Jesus say that wherever a few are gathered in my name, THERE is my church?”
He declared himself against war ? “always have been, always will be. Everything connected with it is anathema to me.” And he deplored a national epidemic of conformity: “It’s going to ruin our democracy.”
For these TV tete-a-tetes, the environment is dark and intimate, as if a therapist’s office during a blackout. And it’s aswirl with smoke: Wallace comes accessorized with a burning cigarette. No wonder. A tobacco company was one of his sponsors.
“My name is Mike Wallace,” he says at the top of many shows. “The cigarette is Philip Morris.”
Fifty years ago this month, viewers saw Wallace interview the Israeli statesman Abba Eban, the influential theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, actress-singer Lillian Roth (whose autobiography, “I’ll Cry Tomorrow,” told of her battles with alcoholism and was made into an Academy Award-winning film starring Susan Hayward) and the surrealist painter Salvador Dali.
“About lecturing with your head enclosed in a diving helmet,” Wallace asked him imploringly: “Why? Why?”
To which Dali sort-of answered in his broken English, “The audience understand Dali when penetrate in the bottom of the sea … in the depth of the subconscious.”
In September 1957, Wallace talked with Margaret Sanger, founder of the birth control movement in the United States. A couple of weeks later, his guest was Lili St. Cyr, billed as “America’s leading strip teaser.”
Other guests included Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, labor leader Walter Reuther, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell, voicing harsh words about a rock star named Elvis, “this young, unattractive man without any talent whatever. …”
In May 1957, Wallace interviewed Eldon Edwards, the Ku Klux Klan’s Imperial Wizard.
“Do people regard (the Klan) as something comical, as kind of a comic opera?” Wallace asked him. “What do you think of the NAACP?”
A Time magazine profile has labeled the Mike Wallace of that era “hypersensational.”
Or was he just tougher and more direct?
“It was unheard of to ask some of the questions we asked then,” Wallace recalled Thursday for The Associated Press. “I had a knack, and the audience was fascinated.”
Now rediscovering those shows is just a point-and-click away.