Screenwriter and director Peter Rader’s first book, “Mike Wallace: A Life” was already slated for release on April 13 when Wallace died last weekend at age 93. Rader spoke to CJR about Wallace’s insecurities, the origins of his famed interview techniques, and the tragedy that spurred his journalism career. Rader’s answers have been condensed and edited.
Why did you select Mike Wallace as the subject of your first book?
My sister worked for Mike in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and she told me an anecdote about one of their first sort of profound conversations that just made me completely intrigued by this man. My sister was scheduled to meet Mike Wallace and escort him to a remote, I think it was a refugee camp and, on that ride, he told her a story of the tragic and unexpected death of his son at age 19, when he was 47. What’s kind of amazing about the Mike Wallace story is that he did not join CBS News until he was 47 years old—the idea of being a full time, bona fide journalist did not begin until midlife. And there was something so powerful about that. It always stayed with me. Years later, I was thinking that I’d really like to write a biopic, and the idea of Mike came into my mind. Warner Bros. said, “It’s intriguing, it’s fascinating, but we need a book to set this up.”
Was this an authorized biography?
No. It was rare that I talked to [Wallace], and ultimately he declined to go on the record.
How did you go about reporting it?
He pointed me to his collection of personal papers that he had just donated to the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. There was just so much there, and Mike was on the record in so many instances. The other aspect of the story is that so many people who crossed paths with him have also authored memoirs. My sister helped off the record—she had a four or five-year [working] relationship [with Wallace] in some remote places. They did probably 30 stories together. She put me in touch with her boss, Barry Lando, who is based in Paris and worked as a “60 Minutes” senior producer for 30 years.
What are some of the most unexpected things you learned about Wallace?
One of the overarching themes that was astonishing to me is that, on some levels, Mike, throughout his career, harbored insecurities about his credentials as a journalist. Here you have one of the most well-regarded, iconic broadcast journalists in America and yet, on the inside, he has the feeling of being a fraud. Mike began his career as a TV personality—as a showman, as a pitchman for cigarettes and other products. He came into the business as an entertainer and then made the transition to journalism, so it’s certainly understandable why he would be sensitive to charges of sensationalism and questions about his credentials. And yet that very thing became one of his great strengths as a reporter. As a former actor, he was able to really listen in interviews and also provoke, make a facial gesture, indicate some skepticism in a way that invoked his interviewees to squirm. His best question was often the single word “and,” or even just skeptical silence and a raised eyebrow.
When Mike arrived on set, he often had less than two hours before an interview; he is essentially doing a scripted piece. When you think about how it must have made him feel—was he really a reporter? But Mike took us from print journalism into broadcast journalism. When he was born, there wasn’t even radio. He was one of the very early radio announcers, delivering news in what was called the “rip and read” style, in which you took the copy right off the AP wires. Then of course came the advent of television itself, and Mike actually, interestingly had some reluctance to make that transition. He didn’t think he had a TV face.
How did you react to the news of Wallace’s death?
I was caught completely off guard and deeply saddened. The fact that it happened to coincide with the release of my book was kind of just bizarre. I really did not expect this, and certainly, what can I say? I’d say that I think it’s really important that so much focus is being placed upon Mike Wallace right now, because he was such an iconic figure in transforming the way the news was presented and the news was consumed by the general public. So the extent to which my book can contribute to shining a light on what was an extraordinary life, I’m glad.