October 13, 2019

How Mike Wallace Changed the Face of Television

A scene from “Mike Wallace is Here.” Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

When Mike Wallace, the original and chief interrogator of CBS-TV’s “60 Minutes,” had finished giving the treatment to Joseph Coors in a 1982 interview, the beer magnate sighed and observed that “the four most frightening words in the English language are ‘Mike Wallace is here.’ ”

Avi Belkin, a Tel Aviv-born film director, producer and screenwriter, has taken these rueful words as the title of his feature film and documentary “Mike Wallace Is Here,” which opens in Los Angeles at the end of this month.

Belkin, who now lives in L.A., said in a phone interview that after first watching “60 Minutes” in Israel, he became intrigued how Wallace had changed the nature of television news — particularly investigative journalism — during his 60-year career.

The filmmaker decided to create a documentary about Wallace, regardless of the obstacles, which included the fact that Wallace no longer was alive. Wallace died in 2012, shortly before his 94th birthday. In addition, neither CBS nor “60 Minutes” had ever allowed an outsider to take control of the program’s used and unused footage.

But 39-year-old Belkin was both highly persuasive and persistent, and convinced the network to give him full access to its film vault. He spent a total of 1,400 hours watching all the footage. Wallace’s son, Chris, a veteran Fox News anchor, helped Belkin. “Two-thirds of the footage in the current movie has never been shown before,” Belkin said.

Mike Wallace’s parents came to America as Russian-Jewish immigrants and quickly Anglicized their surname, changing it from Wallick to Wallace. They subsequently named their son Myron Leon Wallace, which morphed into “Mike” after he became a journalist, game-show host, advertising pitchman, actor and media personality.

“Wallace was proud of being Jewish but to him, it was really another facet of his life. It wasn’t central … . If we had included all available material, the film would have been nine hours long.”  — Avi Belkin

Given the Jewish backgrounds of the film’s sole character and of its director, it seems surprising the word “Jewish” isn’t once uttered in the 90-minute film.

Surely, with all the enemies Wallace made with his exposures, some victim must have muttered something about an “S.O.B. Jew” or a similar expletive.

Perhaps the closest Wallace ever came to alluding to his ethnicity on-air was during his interview with Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam (although none of that interview is used in the documentary). At one point, Wallace turned to Farrakhan and said, “You don’t trust the media. You’ve said so. You don’t trust whites. You said so. You don’t trust Jews. You’ve said so. Well, here I am.”

Regarding the absence of any Jewish references in the film, Belkin said, “Wallace was proud of being Jewish but to him, it was really another facet of his life. It wasn’t central. … If we had included all available material, the film would have been nine hours long.”

By most worldly measures, Wallace was a success. “Wallace was the first rock-star journalist on TV and changed the game of television,” Belkin said. Yet there was a dark side to Wallace’s life. He suffered from deep bouts of depression and at one point, attempted to take his own life. Apparently, none of his four marriages was particularly happy, and he deeply mourned the death of his younger son, Peter, who died at age 19 while mountain climbing in Greece.

On the other hand, Wallace could look back on his professional life to proclaim,
“I love the urgency of what we do and I like the battles — the jousting — that takes place.”

“Mike Wallace Is Here” opens July 26 at the Landmark 12 in West L.A.; at the Playhouse7 in Pasadena; at Edwards Westpark 8 in Irvine on Aug. 2; and at the Marketplace 6 in Long Beach on Aug. 9.