LAUREL, Md. — William A. Leonard, a CBS News veteran who influenced network media stars from Edward R. Murrow to Dan Rather and helped develop such shows as "60 Minutes," died Sunday of a stroke. He was 78.
Leonard died at Laurel Regional Hospital, according to Tom Goodman, a spokesman for CBS. Leonard lived in nearby Washington.
He was responsible for the selection of Rather to succeed Walter Cronkite as anchor of the "CBS Evening News." Earlier, he had been a key figure in the creation of "60 Minutes," as well as of techniques for rapidly predicting the outcome of political races.
"Bill Leonard was the only on-air network journalist ever to be president of CBS News, and his bravura, warm and iconoclastic style reflected his years as a major broadcaster and made him a brilliant, unique executive," said Howard Stringer, president of the CBS Broadcast Group. "He presided over all of the great documentaries of the 1960s and 1970s and was the godfather of '60 Minutes.' "
Born in New York City, Leonard spent his childhood in Orange, N.J., and Westport, Conn. He earned a bachelor's degree from Dartmouth College and went to work as a reporter for the Bridgeport (Conn.) Post-Telegram.
Leonard joined CBS in 1945, after serving in the Navy during World War II. He was hired at the network's flagship radio station, WABC (later WCBS) in New York City, to anchor a program that became "This Is New York" on the radio and later "Eye on New York" on television. The series, which ran for 15 years with Leonard as host, was one of the forerunners of today's electronic magazine format.
Leonard's penetrating interview style led him to be chosen by CBS News to be a floor reporter at the 1952, 1956 and 1960 political conventions. In 1959, he became a full-time CBS News correspondent in the group that would inaugurate the CBS Reports documentary series.
Leonard went on to become head of the newly formed CBS News Election Unit in 1961-65, where he was in charge of editorial policies, production plans and on-air broadcasts.
He continued to supervise political coverage at CBS News until 1972. By 1965, he had become vice president and later, senior vice president of CBS News programming. During this period, a number of new documentary forms were developed at CBS, most notably "60 Minutes" but also "Magazine," "30 Minutes" and "Sunday Morning."
Leonard succeeded the retiring Richard S. Salant as president of CBS News in 1979 and retired in June, 1982. Among his many news and broadcasting citations were a George Foster Peabody award for his career contribution to radio and television, several Emmys and the Albert Lasker Award for Medical Journalism.
He is survived by his wife, the former Norma Kaphan Wallace, and six sons.