Barbara Walters: The 11th most fascinating person ever

05/14/2014 6:42 AM

05/14/2014 6:42 AM

On Friday, when Barbara Walters signs off from “The View” for the final time, one of the more remarkable careers in television will come to an (apparent) end.

In thousands of interviews over the years, Walters, 84, has sat down with heads of state, movie stars and murderers. She’s challenged the shah of Iran and Bashar Assad and quizzed the likes of Liam Neeson and Patrick Dempsey about losing their virginity.

That sometimes uncomfortable flitting between the serious and the silly has made her the object of parody (most famously in the form of Gilda Radner’s Baba Wawa on the early years of “Saturday Night Live”) and occasionally derision.

But what can get overshadowed in the criticism about her emotional interviewing style, blurring of the lines between news and entertainment and chumminess with some sources are the accomplishments of a half-century run in the television business.

It’s not just the firsts – the first woman to co-host of “Today” and to be co-anchor of a nightly network news program – as she fought the industry’s entrenched sexism. It’s the real, journalistic chops underpinning her rise and reign.

Time and again, she’s elicited revealing answers from people who manage their public images with great care. Richard Nixon, asked by Walters during a live interview whether he’d burn the Oval Office recordings if he had to live through Watergate again, said he would.

Here are some of the other memorable moments in Walters’ television life:

Most surprising tears

No moment in a Walters interview is as integral as the crying jag. First comes a personal question, or five. The tears begin to well. Her quarry may try to suppress the urge to cry with a sniffle, but resistance proves futile. A few more probing questions, and the tears descend, occasionally escalating into full-scale blubbering.

The likes of Ringo Starr, Patrick Swayze, Ellen DeGeneres, Courtney Love and Oprah Winfrey have succumbed. The Walters-induced cry has even acquired a term of its own: “Go ahead and glerg,” a fake Walters, played by Rachel Dratch, tells her helpless subject on an episode of “30 Rock.”

But no subject’s tears were as surprising as those of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. Interviewed toward the end of the first Gulf War, Schwarzkopf became a little weepy while reminiscing about his father. Walters expressed her astonishment. “Generals don’t cry,” she said.

Schwarzkopf replied, “Sure, they do.”

Most difficult interview

Walters has dealt with her share of problematic interview subjects over the years. Dictators or celebrities – sometimes it was difficult to determine who were more controlling and demanding. Barbra Streisand insisted on, and received, final cut of a 1976 interview, set to coincide with the release of her remake of “A Star Is Born.” The editing process was such a nightmare that Walters vowed never again to cede to anyone else control over what went on the air.

Streisand, however, doesn’t win the contest for the “absolutely worst interview I ever conducted.” Warren Beatty captures the honor, for an appearance on “Today” in 1966 to promote “Kaleidoscope,” a comic crime movie. As Walters recounts in her 2008 memoir, “Audition,” he showed up “rumpled and bleary-eyed,” and grunted monosyllabic answers as he slumped in his chair.

At wit’s end, Walters trotted out a default question: What was the movie about? His answer: “Well, that’s really a difficult question.”

Fed up, Walters said: “Mr. Beatty, you are the most difficult interview I’ve ever had. We’ll go to a commercial.”

Like many of her interview subjects, Beatty later became a “very good friend.”

Most ridiculed question

Walters’ interviewing style, with its emphasis on feelings and personal lives, has long rankled critics. Though her approach seems de rigueur today, in 1976, her querying President-elect Jimmy Carter about whether he and his wife, Rosalynn, slept in a double bed or separately set off some clucking. Morley Safer excoriated her in a radio commentary, pronouncing that the journalism career of the recently named co-anchor of “ABC Evening News” had come to an ignominious end in the Carters’ Plains, Ga., home.

Yet, it was a question delivered five years later that Walters says still invites ridicule. After Katharine Hepburn described herself as feeling like “a tree” in her old age, Walters responded with the obvious follow-up question: “What kind of tree are you?”

That exchange took on a life of its own; Johnny Carson even heckled (her word) Walters on “The Tonight Show” a few years later.

But Hepburn had gamely taken the bait. Her choice: A sturdy oak.

Biggest get

Competition for that exclusive first interview with newsmakers – the all-important “get” – is fierce. And Walters has played the game as well and as hard as anyone. Among the more notable: She conducted the first joint interview with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, in 1977, much to Walter Cronkite and CBS’ chagrin.

But one “get” looms over all the others: landing Monica Lewinsky for a sit-down interview after the revelations about her affair with President Bill Clinton. After asking Lewinsky about showing the president her thong, the infamous blue dress and the toll that the Starr investigation and the media circus had taken on Lewinsky and her family, Walters’ last question epitomized her ability to wrest memorable lines out of her subjects. What, she asked, would Lewinsky tell her future children about the whole tawdry affair? “Mommy made a big mistake.”

Walters then turned to the camera: “And that is the understatement of the year.”

Nearly 50 million watched the two-hour interview on March 3, 1999. No television news broadcast on a single network has ever drawn more viewers.

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