Barbara Walters, the trailblazing television broadcaster who became the first female to co-host the Today Show, died Friday. She was 93.
ABC News interrupted its schedule Friday night to share the news and reflect on her career.
Walters was known in recent years as the co-creator of “The View,” but older viewers remember her as the first female anchor of a network news program and the pre-eminent interviewer on television.
“I do so much homework, I know more about the person than he or she knows about themselves,” Walters said in a 2014 television special.
Walters made history on Oct. 4, 1976, when, after ending a 13-year stint on Today, she joined Harry Reasoner as co-anchor of the ratings-challenged ABC Evening News. The old-school news veteran was not pleased.
“We were a great failure,” she said. “He didn’t want a partner. It wasn’t that he disliked me. I was forced on him.” Incredibly, she did not meet with Reasoner before taking the job.
The terms of her deal, which she signed with ABC Entertainment president Fred Silverman, were lavish and unprecedented. Her five-year, $5 million contract, which included her hosting four one-hour primetime specials each year, made her the highest-paid newscaster in history. CBS’ Walter Cronkite was earning about $400,000 at the time.
Half of Walters’ salary came out of the entertainment division’s budget, lending credence to the criticism that ABC News had tilted toward show business. When he heard what Walters was getting paid, then-CBS News president Richard Salant asked, “Is Barbara a journalist, or is she Cher?”
“I got terrible press,” Walters, who maintained that she was making more money at NBC at the time, said in a 2000 interview with the Archive of American Television. “It was like I was some chorus girl who had come out of Radio City. There were terrible cartoons of me. I didn’t come from the Associated Press or United Press. I was raised in television, and I was a woman. And here was this wonderful, grizzled Harry Reasoner.”
Said former ABC newsman Sam Donaldson, “It was a dysfunctional duo, with a man sitting there looking down his nose at a woman.”
At the low point of her career, she said she was encouraged by letters she received from female viewers as well as by a telegram from John Wayne that read, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
Walters and Reasoner remained on the air until July 7, 1978, when Roone Arledge, who had recently added news to his sports portfolio at ABC, replaced the pair with a three-anchor format headed by London-based Peter Jennings.
“I began then to work my way back,” she said.
The fiercely competitive, always impeccably dressed Walters soon became the epitome of the TV-journalist-as-celebrity, overcoming a speech impediment — which made her the object of a “Baba Wawa” parody by Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live — to sustain a remarkable career with a series of landmark “gets.”
The first Barbara Walters Special aired in 1976 when she interviewed President-elect Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, for the first half of the show. For the second half, she chatted with Barbra Streisand and her boyfriend at the time, producer Jon Peters.
Her September 1995 interview with paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve — his first since his devastating spinal-cord injury — was one of 20/20’s highest-rated programs. “For years to millions of moviegoers, Christopher Reeve was Superman. I think he’s more Superman now,” she said as she introduced the piece, for which she won a Peabody Award.Hollywood Reporter
In some ways, Walters had been preparing for those trademark interviews all her life. Born in Boston on Sept. 25, 1929, Barbara Jill Walters had gotten to see the rich and famous up close as the daughter of nightlife impresario Lou Walters, who owned clubs up and down the East Coast.
“I learned that celebrities were human beings,” Walters said in 2014. “I never thought of a celebrity as someone so perfect and wonderful that I should be put off.”
Inheriting her father’s drive, Walters graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a bachelors degree in English and broke into journalism as an assistant at NBC affiliate WRCA-TV. In 1955, she married businessman Robert Henry Katz, but her first love remained her fledgling career. The couple divorced three years later.
Hired as a writer and researcher on “TODAY,” Walters rose to become the only female producer on the show and started filing in on air occasionally as the “TODAY Girl,” a reporting role reserved for fashion shows, lifestyle trends and the weather that was previously held, among others, by Florence Henderson of “Brady Bunch” fame.
Hardly the kind of hard reporting to which Walters clearly aspired.
Off-air, Walters married the theater producer Lee Guber in 1963, with whom she adopted a daughter, Jacqueline, named after Walters’ older sister, who was developmentally disabled. The marriage would last 13 years.
Her big breakthrough came with an assignment to travel with Jacqueline Kennedy on the first lady’s trip to India in 1962. That led to more newsy pieces and a bump in status to co-hosting responsibilities opposite Hugh Downs — though she didn’t get the official title until 1974. By that time, Downs had left the network and was replaced by Frank McGee.
McGee, who died shortly after being partnered with Walters, demanded that he ask three questions to every one of Walter’s in studio interviews. He was a real newsman, after all.
So, Walters started fielding interviews outside the studio, quickly building a reputation as an incisive and probing questioner.NBC News