Barbara Walters interview, with table turned

The one-on-one master on her life, career and all those L's and R's


September 05, 2004|By Virginia Heffernan | Virginia Heffernan,New York Times News Service

After a quarter century as co-host, Barbara Walters, the alpha female of broadcast news, is leaving 20 / 20, the ABC program on which she has interviewed Fidel Castro, Christopher Reeve, Hillary Rodham Clinton and -- before 48.5 million viewers in 1999 -- Monica Lewinsky.

Nearly 75, Walters has made it clear that she's not leaving television news, the form that she, as America's first female anchor, helped define.

She will continue to produce a half-dozen interview specials a year for ABC, including her signature Oscar-night specials, and she'll also appear twice weekly on The View, the daytime talk show she created. The right story, Walters has hinted, might even bring her back for a guest appearance on 20 / 20.

As the network struggles to reinvent the show without her, she sat down to talk about making celebrities cry, landing big interviews and pronouncing L's and R's.

You've been at 20 / 20 for 25 years. Why are you leaving now?

I wanted to leave at the top -- after the interviews I had last year, including the second interview with Martha Stewart. Newsmagazines in general are somewhat in jeopardy, I think. I didn't want anyone to say, she was forced out, she had to leave.

But you're wearing a ring that says "I did that already." Have you gotten tired of television news?

It's changing. And I'll tell you the way it's going to be: We're going to hear that a woman had a love affair with a frog. The producers are going to come to me and say: "Barbara, this woman had a love affair with a frog. Diane Sawyer already has the woman lined up. Do you want to do the frog?" And I will say, "OK, but only if I can get the frog and his mother." And they'll say: "But the frog wants an hour. And before you do the frog, the frog is going to do Oprah. OK?"

But I don't like to talk about it as if these are the bad days and those were the good days. I hate that kind of, "Ah, it was wonderful ..."

Let's talk about the old days anyway. How did you get started in television?

At a certain point, I had to work. I had to support my whole family. My father was, I guess, what we would call an impresario. He produced great, glorious shows, kind of like Las Vegas shows, in, at the time, the most famous nightclub in America, called the Latin Quarter. Many comedians still know me as Lou A's daughter. But like many great impresarios, my father died broke, and I supported the family from the time I was about 22 or 23. I had to work.

That's how you found your way to television?

I was the assistant to the director of publicity for the local NBC station, WNBC-TV. Then I went to work in public relations, where my boss was Bill Safire. Then I got a job on The Today Show as a writer. And then I did Today Reports. I did -- I don't know what -- "a day in the life of a nun." I was a Playboy bunny for four days. So I was known to the audience because I had traveled and done these stories -- and, by the way, did my own makeup and hair.

Maureen O'Sullivan was hired ... [but] she was very unhappy on the show. And when we went into the convention that nominated Lyndon Johnson, she couldn't cope with it. They took her off and hired me for 13 weeks, and I stayed on for 13 years.

How did you get your first big interviews on Today?

Frank McGee [the show's host] ... it was his decision that if there was a hard news interview, I could only come in after he'd asked three questions. Only if I did it outside of the studio, then I could do the whole interview.

So that's when I think I had a reputation as being very pushy because I tried very hard to do interviews outside of the studio. I did Henry Kissinger. And I knew many of the ambassadors in Washington. At one point, the Egyptian ambassador introduced me to the foreign minister, and I said that I would like to interview Anwar Sadat. So the foreign minister arranged it and I flew to Cairo. Over the years, I did more interviews with Sadat, I think, than any other journalist, certainly any other television journalist.

Did the network recognize your contribution?

It was only the last two years that I was made co-host. What happened was that Frank McGee died [in 1974]. And then NBC put out a release saying we're looking for another host. And I said, "Co-host," in a little quiet voice. And they said: "Co-host? A woman co-host?" So ever since then, the women have been co-host.

Why did you leave when you'd been made co-host?

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