'Nightline's' Historic Nelson Mandela Interview

Ted Koppel, first to interview Mandela after his release from prison, asked an unexpected question.
3:00 | 12/06/13

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Transcript for 'Nightline's' Historic Nelson Mandela Interview
different kind of story about nelson mandela who died yesterday at 95. It is already saturday morning in south africa, and overnight his flag-draped coffin began its journey back to his ancestral home to be buried. But long before he became a global father figure, when mandela was locked for decades in a prison cell, a loan lonely voice, protesting brutal racial policies. This broadcast made a commitment to cover his struggle when few others were. "Nightline" has been there every step of the way on his long walk to freedom. Here's abc's john donvan with our story. In the epic that is the story of nelson mandela as south africa, a small but important chapter happened to have been played by an american news program. ♪ this one, "nightline." On a february afternoon in 1990, tv stations everywhere across the globe really, everywhere, held this single live totally uninteresting shot on and off for close to an hour. Because everyone was waiting, finally to see this. This distant figure. Nelson mandela. A man who not been photographed in nearly three decades. Finally walking free from prison. Waiting there to nlts stinterview him, ted koppel. We told me, so was everyone else to interview nelson mandela. No one had an appointment. Everyone rented a house across the street from winnie mandela's home in soweto, and there we were with our binoculars, sitting there. He is here yement. He isn't here yet. Which one of us will be invited to come over and do the interview? Dan rather was over there. In fact I know dan well. Dan beat me. He was there first. I was there second. This is abc news "nightline," reporting from south africa. Second maybe. Tonight we have only one sg guest. Nelson mandela. First to come to earth on the broadcast, the opening question went not to politics race or the future but to sports. He was surprised the other night with tyson? Yes, very much surprised. I took it for granted that he would win. So did he. You went right to the boxing question. I did. What was your plan? I want to hit him with a question he really wasn't expecting. Did you ever think of turning pro, turning professionally? No, never did. You were a good boxer? Well I do not know. That its for others to say. Nelson mandela was never an easy man to loosen up. Long enough aago. Did mandela loosen in the interview? A little. Not really. Even talking basics like the prison food. Live on it in the morning. For lunch, and millis pop. A millis ground and cooked. Like porridge? Yes. Like porridge. And they cook it in prison. Very bad in those days. The preparation of the food left very much to be desired. In that, mandela, maintained a rectitude in language, gesture and posture that set him at a distance. Your time with him was rather formal. Nelson mandela was not some one who was going to be my buddy. And he wasn't going to let me be his buddy. Yet mandela in subsequent years, rarely perhaps, never said no. When ted invited him to be on "nightline." That willingness, ted is certain, stems from a history making week of "nightline" in SOUTH AFRICA IN THE 1980s. South africa is changing. We said we will only do this series of programs, we will only come to south africa if members of the white government agree to engage in dialogue on the air. Which never happened on their own television? Which never hap fepened on their own television if you dialogue with black leaders. We had an owe skaccasion with the south african foreign minister appeared live on television in the united states with then bishop desmond tutu. It was an extraordinary moment. Did you think it was possible? If -- degradation, and dehumanizing. Then I will stand against apartheid. It was rebroadcast the next day in south africa. On the south african broadcasting company. And the impact was huge. Absolutely enormous. It all happened when mandela was at that point in his 23rd year of imprisonment. Ted says in an important way. Mandela was there. Mandela was in every exchange. We could not have done what we did in south africa had it not been for -- for mandela. In what way? In the sense that mandela exerted such moral suasion. The shows the also made a connection. The door with mandela was opponenten for for you because of the week you did. He heard and knew what we had done. Thed had a moment with mandela years later at a town meeting in the united states. I interrupted him and was going to say something else. And then he -- I thought was going to jump in and say something. So, I paused. And he said something like -- i don't know if I -- largely african-american crowd, at the town meeting, loved it. You know, here is the white anchor getting it right in the chops from the man himself. It was a great moment for him, for them, and not as the great for me. Now a great story to tell. Yeah. No they were not buddies. But for maybe a brief moment. They were both part of the story. Something journalists are supposed to try not to be but some times it cannot be helped. We don't get the opportunity very often to really make a difference. I think our programs in south africa made a difference.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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