PrimeTime: Interview With Don Hewitt

If it weren't for Don Hewitt, there might never have been a 20/20. Thirty-three years ago, he came up with an idea for a television show called 60 Minutes and forever changed the medium of TV news. After 90,000 minutes of television — 1,500 shows — Hewitt is still its executive producer.

When he started at CBS in 1948, he didn't even own a TV. But he learned quickly and television became his life's work. In his new book, Tell Me a Story: Fifty Years and 60 Minutes in Television, Hewitt chronicles his experiences as a central figure in some of TV's defining moments. On 20/20 this Friday, April 6, Barbara Walters turns the table on Hewitt and finds out a little about what makes the famous producer tick.

TV Turning Point

BARBARA WALTERS: 1960, the John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon debate and you were the producer. ... What do you remember?

DON HEWITT: In hindsight, I remember it as the night that ruined television ... That was the night that the politicians realized this is the way to campaign and out of that came this obscene amount of money that now buys elections.

WALTERS: Who do you think won?

HEWITT: Kennedy ... Kennedy took it more seriously ... When I asked them both whether they wanted makeup, Kennedy said, "No," he didn't need makeup. Nixon heard him say, "I don't want makeup," and Nixon said to himself, I'm sure, "Uh-oh, if I get made up they're gonna say, 'I was made up,'" — and he wasn't [made up]. Well, I found out something years later: Kennedy was made up that night.

'A Repertory Company'

WALTERS: You write in your book about Mike Wallace you say he is one in a million in journalism. You have the highest praise for him. Is Mike Wallace the star of 60 Minutes?

HEWITT: Without Mike Wallace there never would have been a broadcast. Today there is no real star, it is a repertory company ... The broadcast is the star ...

WALTERS: If you had to put one 60 Minutes something in a time capsule — one piece — what would it be?

HEWITT: It's George Burns taking Ed Bradley up to Forest Lawn to Gracie Allen's mausoleum walking up, putting his hand up, and he said, "Googie, this is Ed Bradley from 60 Minutes, he's gonna put us on television, honey, we're gonna work together again ..." I melted. I mean I went to pieces.

WALTERS: It's interesting that the human-interest interview is what touches you the most and yet 60 Minutes is not known as much for that as they are for their combative investigative pieces.

HEWITT: Yeah well, what you are and what you get a reputation for aren't always the same thing.

'Lived There All My Life'

WALTERS: What do you think your talent has been all these years?

HEWITT: Boy, if I knew, I'd package it. I haven't the slightest idea. I don't think much comes from up here [points to his head]. I'm not very well read — I flunked out of college ...

WALTERS: You are 78 years old. That's so hard to imagine. You're so — to me — young and vigorous. And Mike [Wallace] is 83 and ... that gives us all hope. Will you stay on the job until you drop?

HEWITT: I hope so, my fear is retiring ... My office is like a cocoon. I've lived there all my life, and I get in there and I feel secure and warm. I want to die there. I don't want to die in a canoe; I don't want to die on a tennis court.

WALTERS: Or in bed?

HEWITT: No, I really want to die in that office.