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'60 Minutes' creator Don Hewitt dies at 86

Hewitt dies of pancreatic cancer at home in Bridgehampton, N.Y. He began his TV career in 1948, and it reached a pinnacle with the much-lauded and highly rated '60 Minutes.'

August 20, 2009|Dennis McLellan

It began at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 1968.

"Good evening. This is '60 Minutes,' " Harry Reasoner said into the camera.

With fellow correspondent Mike Wallace seated next to him, Reasoner explained the concept of the new show -- one that had the flexibility and diversity of a magazine, adapted to broadcast journalism.

The show with the iconic ticking stopwatch launched the TV newsmagazine genre and later became a Sunday evening ritual for millions of viewers.

"60 Minutes" was the brainchild of Don Hewitt, the show's longtime executive producer, who died Wednesday of pancreatic cancer at his home in Bridgehampton, N.Y., at age 86.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, August 22, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Hewitt obituary: An obituary of CBS news executive Don Hewitt in Thursday's Section A said his father worked for the Boston Herald American. When Hewitt's father worked for the newspaper, it was called the Boston American.

Hewitt's new brand of TV journalism offered a mix of exposes, human-interest stories and profiles, and spawned a flood of imitators, including ABC's "20/20" and NBC's "Dateline."

"I unashamedly admit I stole this program lock, stock and barrel, from Life magazine," he told The Times in 1980. "It's an illustrated anthology."

And, in time, it became the top-rated show on television.

" '60 Minutes" became the television viewer's "Sunday absolution," Av Westin, a former executive producer of "20/20" and a former ABC News executive who worked with Hewitt at CBS, said Wednesday.

"Even if you hadn't read a book or a newspaper all week, if you saw '60 Minutes,' the next morning at the water cooler, you could say, 'I am informed,' " he said. "It really became kind of a visceral attraction that people couldn't miss."

Bill Small, who served as a top executive at CBS News and NBC News, said that when "60 Minutes" began taking off in the ratings, "the other networks said, 'We ought to do something like that.' All the magazine shows -- even the lightweight entertainment shows -- owe their roots to what Hewitt was doing."

In the process, "60 Minutes" turned its correspondents -- Wallace, Reasoner, Morley Safer, Dan Rather and Lesley Stahl among others -- and the man behind the scenes -- into household names.

Respected innovator

Hewitt was already a highly respected TV newsman.

In a television career that started in 1948, when he began his association with CBS as an associate director on the network's evening news show, Hewitt's numerous accomplishments earned him a place in the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Hall of Fame in 1990.

Among them:

He produced and directed what ultimately became known as "Douglas Edwards With the News" from 1949 to 1962 and was executive producer the first year of the ensuing "CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite," during which the traditional 15-minute news broadcast was expanded to 30 minutes.

He also directed CBS' early coverage of the national political conventions, beginning with the first televised convention in 1948.

And more famously, he produced and directed the first televised presidential debate, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, in 1960.

Nixon, who prior to the debate had been hospitalized for a knee injury, turned down Hewitt's offer of the services of a makeup artist to cover his sallow complexion and 5 o'clock shadow after the tanned and fit Kennedy declined.

The historic debate, in which TV viewers generally considered Kennedy the winner while radio listeners felt Nixon had won, established the power of television in national politics.

After heading a new documentary unit at CBS in the mid-1960s, Hewitt created "60 Minutes," his most successful, acclaimed and profitable program, which he executive-produced for 36 years.

Former Times television critic Howard Rosenberg once described Hewitt as "an extraordinary TV bossman/showman, a tough, blunt, imaginative and spit-in-your-eye deliverer of highly watchable journalism and highly bankable ratings."

In May 1980, "60 Minutes" was the No. 1 show of the 1979-80 season -- a feat it would achieve five times during Hewitt's reign.

As Hewitt once told Rolling Stone magazine: "The trick is to grab the viewer by the throat, not let his mind wander and start thinking about what else might be going on."

Once characterized in the Washington Post as loud, pugnacious, spleeny "and having the attention span of a hummingbird," Hewitt shunned formal editorial meetings. "If we had meetings, the show would look like a meeting," he reasoned. He was known for telling his correspondents and producers to "just tell me a story."

Behind the scenes, Hewitt also was well-known for his screaming matches with his big-name correspondents, a form of verbal combat that Safer once described as "mutual torture sessions."

Tough but fair

"He was a tough, tough editor, and all of us who worked with him had some of the worst arguments -- practically blood-on-the-floor arguments -- over stories and how they're covered," Safer told The Times on Wednesday. "But he had a remarkable gift. Fifteen minutes later, it was as if it had never happened. There was no grudge.

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