(CBS/AP) - CBS News legend Mike Wallace, the "60 Minutes" pit-bull reporter whose probing, brazen style made his name synonymous with the tough interview, died Sunday night. He was 93 and passed peacefully surrounded by family members at Waveny Care Center in New Canaan, Conn., where he spent the past few years.
"All of us at CBS News and particularly at '60 Minutes' owe so much to Mike. Without him and his iconic style, there probably wouldn't be a '60 Minutes,' said Jeff Fager, chairman CBS News and executive producer of "60 Minutes."
As the journalism world reacted to the iconic newsman's passing, the AP's David Bauder noted the "60 Minutes" journalist's reputation as a pitiless inquisitor was so fearsome that the words "Mike Wallace is here to see you" were the most dreaded words in the English language; capable of reducing an interview subject to a shaking, sweating mess.
Watch: Mike Wallace's toughest interviews
"Wallace didn't just interview people," wrote Bauder on Sunday. "He interrogated them. He cross-examined them. Sometimes he eviscerated them. His weapons were many: thorough research, a cocked eyebrow, a skeptical "Come on" and a question so direct sometimes it took your breath away."
"He loved it," Fager said Sunday. "He loved that part of Mike Wallace. He loved being Mike Wallace. He loved the fact that if he showed up for an interview, it made people nervous. ... He knew, and he knew that everybody else knew, that he was going to get to the truth. And that's what motivated him."
"It is with tremendous sadness that we mark the passing of Mike Wallace. His extraordinary contribution as a broadcaster is immeasurable and he has been a force within the television industry throughout its existence. His loss will be felt by all of us at CBS," said Leslie Moonves, president and CEO, CBS Corporation.
A special program dedicated to Wallace will be broadcast on "60 Minutes" next Sunday, April 15.
Wallace made "60 Minutes" compulsively watchable, television's first newsmagazine that became appointment viewing on Sunday nights. His last interview, in January 2008, was with Roger Clemens on his alleged steroid use. Slowed by a triple bypass later that month and the ravages of time, he retired from public life.
During the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, he asked Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini — then a feared figure — what he thought about being called "a lunatic" by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Khomeini answered by predicting Sadat's assassination.
Late in his career, he interviewed Russian President Vladimir Putin, and challenged him: "This isn't a real democracy, come on!" Putin's aides tried to halt the interview; Putin said he was the president, he'll decide what to do.
Wallace's late colleague Harry Reasoner once said, "There is one thing that Mike can do better than anybody else: With an angelic smile, he can ask a question that would get anyone else smashed in the face."
Wallace played a huge role in "60 Minutes"' rise to the top of the ratings to become the number-one program of all time, with an unprecedented 23 seasons on the Nielsen annual top 10 list - five as the number-one program.
He announced he would step down to become a "correspondent emeritus" in the spring of 2006, but Wallace continued to land big interviews for "60 Minutes." His last appearance on television, on January 6, 2008, was a sit-down on "60 Minutes" with accused steroid user Roger Clemens that made front-page news. His August 2006 interview of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won him his 21st Emmy at the age of 89. He was also granted the first post-prison interview with assisted suicide advocate and convicted killer Dr. Jack Kevorkian for a June 2007 "60 Minutes" broadcast. After a successful triple bypass operation in late January 2008, he retired from public life.
Decades before his "60 Minutes" success, Wallace was already known to millions. In the early days of broadcasting, with no line between news and entertainment, Wallace did both. In the 1940s and '50s, he appeared on a variety of radio and television programs, first as narrator/announcer, then as a reporter, actor and program host.
On his first network television news program, ABC's "The Mike Wallace Interview," he perfected his interviewing style that he first tried on a local New York television guest show called "Night Beat." Created with producer Ted Yates, "Night Beat" became an instant hit that New Yorkers began referring to as "brow beat." Wallace's relentless questioning of his subjects proved to be a compelling alternative to the polite chit-chat practiced by early television hosts.
Years later, CBS News producer Don Hewitt remembered that hard-charging style when creating his pioneering news magazine, "60 Minutes"; he picked Wallace to be a counterweight to the avuncular Harry Reasoner. On September 24, 1968, Wallace and Reasoner introduced "60 Minutes" to the 10:00 p.m. timeslot, where it ran every other Tuesday. It failed to draw large audiences. But critics praised it, awards followed, and after seven years on various nights, "60 Minutes" went to 7:00 p.m. Sunday and began its rise.
It made the top 20 in 1977 and the top 10 in 1978, then became the number-one program in 1980 - all with a tough-talking Wallace center stage.
The rising interest in Wallace and "60 Minutes" grew partly out of the Watergate scandal. Wallace's interrogations of John Erlichman, G. Gordon Liddy and H.R. Haldeman whetted the appetites of news junkies who continued to tune in to see Wallace joust with other scoundrels. Before long, he was a household name. In 1983, Coors beer took ads out in major newspapers after Wallace's "60 Minutes" investigation found little truth to rumors the company was racist. "The Four Most Dreaded Words in the English Language: Mike Wallace is Here," ran atop ads boasting that the firm had passed muster with the "grand inquisitor" himself.