Wallace brought ‘Biography’ — and history itself — to life
Mike Wallace Interviews made him a star, and 60 Minutes made him a legend. But my earliest and most vivid memories of the broadcast giant who died this week were from a series he hosted in the early 1960s that wasn’t even mentioned in most of the obituaries and tributes to him.
“I’m Mike Wallace and this is Biography.” With those words (and this music) he introduced the award-winning historical documentary series produced by David L. Wolper and Jack Haley Jr. Assembled from newsreel footage, rare photographs and vintage recordings, each of the more than 60 half-hour episodes Wallace narrated focused on a major figure in 20th century history — from Babe Ruth to Mahatma Gandhi.
After their original run in syndication, many of those Biography episodes showed up on 16mm projectors in elementary schools and high schools. But whether you watched at home on television or in a classroom on a rainy day, there was always something mesmerizing about Wallace’s deep voice and authoritative presence as he made those grainy, black-and-white images — and history itself — come alive.
Wallace was at a low point in his career when he hosted Biography, according to television historians Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh. It was between his earlier phase as an actor, announcer, game show host and commercial pitchman, and his later ascendancy as a CBS News correspondent and eventual 60 Minutes icon.
“Wallace had made his name in news as a fire-breathing interviewer in the late 1950s, but was made to tone down his approach by nervous network executives, and eventually forced out of network news work altogether,” Brooks and Marsh wrote. “The considerable success of Biography helped reestablish his name.”
Chicago was hugely influential during Wallace’s formative years as broadcaster Myron Wallace in the 1940s. “This is where I grew up professionally, so that I have a special feeling about this town,” Wallace told radio historian Chuck Schaden in a 1989 interview. “The extraordinary thing for somebody breaking into the business back then was that it gave you an opportunity to do a variety of chores, and you began to learn what it was that you could do and what you couldn’t do.”
The interview coincided with a salute to Wallace by the Museum of Broadcast Communications. "Wallace loved Chicago and the lifelong friends he met while building his career here — Kup, Studs, Fran Allison, Burr Tillstrom, Hugh Downs and Paul Harvey,” said Bruce DuMont, founder and president of the museum. “Mike also was the first national personality to support my idea for a broadcast museum in 1983 with a $10,000 donation."
Chicagoans will have a chance to celebrate Wallace’s career at a daylong retrospective of his television work Wednesday at the Museum of Broadcast Communications, 360 North State Street. Admission is $5.
Running continuously from 10am to 8:30pm in the Comcast NBCUniversal Center in the National Radio Hall of Fame Gallery, the museum will show the following programs from its archive of Wallace’s work:
- 60 Minutes highlights (1968 – 1988)
- CBS News Special Report: Saigon Under Fire (1967)
- CBS News Coverage: 1968 Democratic National Convention (1968)
- Biography: Senator Joseph McCarthy (1962)
- You Are There: The Crisis of Galileo (1953)
- Mike Wallace Interviews (1957 – 1958)
- CBS News Special Report: In the Pay of the CIA, An American Dilemma (1967)
- CBS Reports: Marijuana (1968)