Monday, October 19, 2009

Don Hewitt

Today Don Hewitt was remembered as a true pioneer of broadcast news in a touching ceremony at the Rose Hall in New York's Time Warner Center. It was a truly poignant event that Don himself would have raved about for weeks.

The gathering included a collection of current and former 60 Minutes employees and many television legends in their own right. Producers, cameramen, editors and staff helped fill the theater to capacity. Don's wife, journalist Marilyn Berger, and his family sat in front.

Current 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager served as the master of ceremonies. He seamlessly and gracefully took the helm of 60 Minutes from Don in 2004. Jeff acknowledged the presence of Mike Wallace, who, at 91 years old and in failing health, was seated in a wheelchair. Jeff then recounted how difficult it was for Don to step down from the program he had created 40 years ago, but pointed out in recent years he accepted his retirement and visited the offices regularly.

Excerpts of a 60 Minutes program that aired shortly after Don's death in August were played throughout the tribute. CBS CEO Les Moonves described his first meeting with the legendary producer and Don's subsequent calls to pass on programming ideas, "I still wait for the phone to ring and hear these words, `Kid, I got a great idea for you,'" Les proclaimed 60 Minutes to be the single most important program ever for CBS. He was proud to announce that 60 Minutes had again finished among the top ten rated shows this past week. In fact, 60 Minutes was television's top rated program a record five times.

Morley Safer, one of the show's first correspondents, compared Don to the great fictional character Bugs Bunny, cunning, smart and always one step ahead of everyone else. He highlighted Don's temperament and well-known impatience, "He had the attention span of a fruit fly on acid." His respect and love for Don resonated in his remarks.

Phil Scheffler, former long time number two to Don and now retired, talked of the old days. In 1950 CBS News had nine employees, one camera and small offices. The evening newscast was broadcast three nights a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Because reports were filed in film, domestic reports took about one day to complete while foreign reports could take three to four days. The visual production of each newscast consisted primarily of UPI still photos. Douglas Edwards was the anchor although he was not a journalist, and Don was the producer. They were inventing television every day. It turns out that the writers and anchors of the powerful post war CBS News Radio operation refused to work in television, they thought it was a fad.

CBS News management removed Don from the evening news, reassigning him to cover special events. Don was the boy wonder and had already successfully produced the presidential debate between Senator John Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. Don was bored in his new assignment so he created a pilot for a new program. This program would be made up of three twelve-minute mini documentaries. It was a news magazine and Mike Wallace and the late Harry Reasoner anchored the pilot. Don pushed and prodded and at last won 60 Minutes a prime time slot twice a month against the number one rated Marcus Welby M.D. Soon it was moved to Sundays at 7PM and the rest is history.

Joan Ganz Cooney, the co-creator of Sesame Street, spoke of her friend of forty years in endearing terms. She declared there were four great pioneers of news, Edward R. Murrow, Roone Arledge, Walter Cronkite and Don Hewitt. Then son in law Bill Cassara, married to Don's daughter Lisa, talked about Don's personal side. He played a clip of Don driving his car singing along to one of Frank Sinatra's great hits. Don had produced a brilliant special on Sinatra 40 years earlier.

Robert Fishman, who called Don his great uncle, recounted the last few months of Don's life. Following Don's heart operation he met with a psychologist, and that night Robert found him sitting alone at home in the dark with the television off and a remote in his hand. "Robert, the doctor says I am depressed." Robert then recounted how Don cited all he had done, his achievements and family, and couldn't understand how the doctor had come to that conclusion. Don was not depressed at all.

Alan Alda was the final speaker. He had gotten to know Don really well in the Hamptons, where they each had weekend homes. Alan talked about Don's very early morning trips to the Candy Kitchen, a corner restaurant in the village of Bridgehampton. There Don spoke to the people and swapped stories for hours. Alan observed, "He never lost touch with simple humanity."

As it happens, last Memorial Day I met with Don at the Candy Kitchen at 6am three days in a row. Don looked weak, his body had been ravaged by pancreatic cancer, but his mind was as sharp as ever. He still had a million ideas and would light up as he talked about each one. In our last meeting I thanked him for all he had done for me when I was overseeing 60 Minutes nearly twenty years earlier. "Oh kid, you don't have to thank me." I was glad I did. I next saw him at Walter Cronkite's funeral. He was near death.

Today's memorial was a wonderful tribute to a true pioneer. There sat Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Steve Kroft, Lesley Stahl, Scott Pelley, Andy Rooney, Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amapour and dozens of other executives, correspondents, producers and editors whose lives Don had impacted. His credo was simple, "Tell me a story." In the end, it was his life story that was celebrated. There will never be another Don Hewitt.

No comments: