Person of the Week: Don Hewitt

Don Hewitt, the creator of CBS News 60 Minutes, on Sunday will take his hand off the helm of that program after 36 years.

Hewitt was born in New York City in 1922, but he was born again in television.

"For reasons I can never explain, when other kids were playing cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, I was playing reporter. And I don't know why. It mushroomed and all of a sudden, it was my life, " Hewitt said.

Hewitt has accomplished many "firsts" in television. Among others, he produced and directed the first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960.

"That's the night that the politicians looked at us and said, 'Hey those guys are the only way to run for office.' And we looked at them and said, 'Those guys are a bottomless pit of advertising dollars.' And from that day to this, you cannot even think about running for office, in the greatest democracy on earth, unless you've got money to buy television time," Hewitt said.

Hewitt pioneered the half-hour network newscast, but he didn't really think it would last.

And after that, he created the legendary 60 Minutes.

"There was a Life magazine on every coffee table in America," said Hewitt. "And I figured there's got to be a way to put a television show on every coffee table in America. I had the faces and names that turned what was bloodless, boring, television into interesting storytelling."

There has never been another news program so identified with its producer. Hewitt is brash, and he is competitive.

"The secret of 60 Minutes is to find people that can tell the story better than you can," he said. "And your job is to help them tell it. "

That is, provided they have a good story.

Britney Spears on 60 Minutes?

"Somebody once asked me if I would do Britney Spears on 60 Minutes. I said, 'Sure I would do Britney Spears — if she had something to say.'"

He and his team of correspondents have made 60 Minutes the highest-rated news program in history.

Said Hewitt: "You know who my competition is? I got it in my pocket; I'll show it to you. My competition is the remote [control]. I figured in every living room in America, everybody who is watching television has one of these things sitting within easy reach. The minute their mind wanders and they reach for this, you're dead."

Getting Hewitt to tell a story is as easy as asking a question.

"I don't think anything ever made me prouder than getting a guy named Lanell Jeeter out of jail," he said. "Morley Safer went down there and turned up all the evidence that cleared this guy. They opened the cell door up, of his lifetime in jail, and said, 'Get out.' And he threw the guy out of jail. It was just great."

"But there were other great moments," he went on. "You know, it was living with Lena Horne, living with Jackie Gleason, Ed Bradley with Muhammad Ali, which is a great story. I went to Ed Bradley and I said, 'You realize the most virile man on earth is almost a shell these days? He can't even talk. There is a great story there.' And Bradley said, 'Well if he can't talk, how am I going to interview him?' And I said 'Stupid! If he could talk, it wouldn't be a story.' "

Hewitt may be stepping down from his post at 60 Minutes, but he's not ready to give up yet.

"I got a million other ideas, and I am not going to go home and sit in the sunlight and vegetate," Hewitt said. "I am not going to die on the tennis court. I'm not going to die in a rowboat. I am going to die in a television studio … I hope."

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