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Controversial '60 Minutes' Film in the Works

Television: Producer Don Hewitt seems unfazed about the prospect of a movie focusing on the show's segment on the tobacco industry.

February 12, 1998|JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Don Hewitt, the creator and executive producer of CBS' "60 Minutes," professes to be unfazed about an upcoming theatrical film based on the relationship between tobacco company whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand and "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman.

"All I know about the movie is that it's based on an article in Vanity Fair magazine," Hewitt said. "If someone's going to play me, I'd like to be played by James Garner."

The movie, which is as yet untitled, chronicles a dark hour in the history of the illustrious TV newsmagazine.

In 1995, in a major expose of the tobacco industry, "60 Minutes" secured an interview with Wigand, a former research chief at the Brown & Williamson tobacco company who charged that the firm had scrapped plans for a safer cigarette and knowingly added a cancer-causing additive to pipe tobacco.

The explosive piece, produced by Bergman and reported by Mike Wallace, was to have aired Nov. 12, 1995, with Wigand's identity kept a secret. But a few days before, network management ordered that much of the interview be spiked, citing fear of a lawsuit from Brown & Williamson.

CBS, which was strongly criticized for having appeared to put legal concerns ahead of journalistic values, finally aired the interview two months later. But there were disagreements among the "60 Minutes" staff about how the story was handled. And Wigand, whose identity was revealed in a leaked transcript of the "60 Minutes" story, was the subject of personal attacks and a lawsuit by the tobacco company over the confidentiality agreement he had signed with his former employer.

"This was not one of our finest hours on '60 Minutes,' " said correspondent Steve Kroft. "You can debate the decisions that were made. But, in the end, we got the story on the air."

Director Michael Mann has cast Al Pacino as producer Bergman in the upcoming movie, which will begin production this spring. Russell Crowe, of "L.A. Confidential," will play Wigand.

Bergman, who is now senior investigative producer for CBS News, said in an interview that he has not seen the final script--from "Forrest Gump" screenwriter Eric Roth--and did not know exactly how the "60 Minutes" personnel will be portrayed.

"I sold [the filmmakers] the rights to my story, but I'm not writing the script," Bergman said. "All I can say is that I'm very flattered to be played by Al Pacino."

The movie, which is based on a 1996 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, is a serious "buddy" movie with political and psychological overtones, according to director Mann. It shows what happens to Bergman, who spent months getting Wigand to tell his story, and to Wigand, whose marriage and personal life fell apart after his identity was revealed.

"The focus is almost exclusively on the story from their perspectives," Mann said Wednesday.

Mann said that there will be an actor playing Wallace ("That won't be easy to cast," he said) but that Hewitt and other CBS executives may not be depicted by name.

The theatrical film is not the only place the Wigand-"60 Minutes" story will be portrayed. Although HBO declined to comment, sources say the pay-cable channel is developing a TV movie about the tobacco industry that will include Wigand's story. And the subject is likely to come up on a TV profile of Hewitt on the occasion of his 50th anniversary at CBS News.

Hewitt, Wallace and others on "60 Minutes" were interviewed about the episode as part of PBS' profile of Hewitt for the "American Masters" series, although it's not clear how much time will be devoted to the subject. The profile of TV pioneer Hewitt, who helped create the "CBS Evening News" in 1948, is scheduled to air in May.

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