The news has landed that legendary “60 Minutes” newsman Mike Wallace has passed away at the age of 93. It was reported by “CBS Sunday Morning” earlier today.
Wallace was of course a titan of his industry, a familiar face on the weekly CBS news show as warm and welcome on the television every Sunday as the nightly showcases of Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Ted Koppel in their times. The highlights of his career are milestones of the news world: the Ayatollah Khomeini, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Iran-Contra and, of course, Big Tobacco.
Which yields an unavoidable question, one Wallace the character posed in Michael Mann’s 1999 film “The Insider”: “I’m not talking celebrity, vanity, CBS. I’m talking about when you’re nearer the end of your life than the beginning. Now, what do you think you think about then? The future? In the future I’m going to do this? Become that? What future? No. What you think is, ‘How will I be regarded in the end? After I’m gone.'”
There’s no question that the pause Wallace took at that critical juncture in his career will be a visible stain on his long and distinguished professional life, but never a detrimental one. If nothing else it’s a long-lasting, bold lesson of the industry’s hard ethical edges and a reminder of frailty and humanity therein.
Wallace, of course, was portrayed brilliantly by last year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Christopher Plummer in Mann’s film. Plummer was criminally neglected by the Academy that year for his performance, which managed to win the LAFCA and NSFC prizes and nearly took the NYFCC honor as well.
“He was so vivid in my mind and my memory,” Plummer said of Wallace at a Santa Barbara Film Festival tribute in January. “He could make people cry. He was a cruel guy, but he was a marvelous TV journalist. I was terrified that he would loathe my performance.” Those fears were assuaged when Wallace later gave Plummer the thumbs up for his portrayal, noting, “I always open my lecture tours by saying, ‘I am not Christopher Plummer.'”
Plummer was on fire in the film, a performance of embodiment and grit, passion and drive that is frankly the rare thing. In a film that featured a career-making turn from Russell Crowe and a highly underrated, dynamo performance from Al Pacino, it was Plummer who really stuck with you once the credits rolled. Like so many performances, I consider Plummer’s recent Oscar to be recognition for that as much as for his wonderful work in Mike Mills’s “Beginners.”
I reached out to the film’s screenwriter, Eric Roth, this morning after I heard the news. Roth really had to dig under Wallace’s skin to flesh out such a vibrant character and so I wanted to hear his thoughts on the matter. They line up with my considerations above.
“He seemed to me to be a giant force of nature, a man who changed journalism forever by asking real questions that required real answers,” Roth wrote back. “Our portrait of him in ‘The Insider’ was to say we are all human, we all put our pants on one leg at a time, we all have our fears and weaknesses and heartbreaks, we are, no matter our fame and fortune, human. He was a man for the ages. Rest in sweet peace.”
But now that Wallace is gone, the question Plummer’s version of him posed becomes the query of the moment. How will he be remembered? I think there is no question. He’ll be remembered as one of the shining beacons of an industry that, as ever, struggles with itself, constantly striving, sometimes failing, to be the just and noble fourth estate it was always meant to be. There was Murrow. There was Cronkite. There was Kuralt, Bradley and Brinkley. And there was Mike Wallace.
From this morning’s “Face the Nation,” here is Morley Safer on his friend and colleague’s long, illustrious career. And after that, a taste of Plummer’s work as Wallace in “The Insider.”
For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.
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