Barbara Walters, the Emmy-winning TV personality and a trailblazer in a male-dominated broadcast journalism, has died. She was 93.
“Barbara Walters, who shattered the glass ceiling and became a dominant force in an industry once dominated by men, has died,” ABC News tweeted Friday night.
Walters was the first woman to co-host a major network morning show, NBC’s Today, and later to co-anchor an evening newscast, albeit in an ill-fitting and ill-conceived attempt to pair her with Harry Reasoner on ABC in the mid-1970s.
But that setback was just a prelude to a career as one of television’s most famous news personalities. Her one-hour Barbara Walters Specials, a mix of sit-downs with celebrities and other big-“get” boldfaced names, were a longtime staple on ABC, while she had a weekly presence as co-anchor of 20/20, pairing her again with Hugh Downs, with whom she had worked on Today. Later in her career, she later created one of daytime’s most popular (and copied) talk shows, The View, co-hosting the show until 2014.
While Walters was dismissed by a male establishment as a figure who injected a personality-driven, softer focus to major events, she pushed back against the stereotype as she landed interviews with world leaders including Golda Meir and Fidel Castro.
In her book Audition, Walters recalled the frantic efforts to land a joint interview with Egypt President Anwar Sadat and Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1977, as Sadat made a historic trip to Israel, before CBS’ Walter Cronkite. She did, as the network got it on the air within seconds of his.
“From that time on, I was more or less accepted as a member of the old boys club,” she wrote.
The interview was one of many with world leaders, where she became known for asking them probing personal questions — and at key moments. Two years before the Shah of Iran was exiled, she asked him about whether women were equal to men. “Not so far. Maybe you will become in the future,” he answered. To Libyan leader Mu’ammar Qaddafi she asked: “In our country we read that you are mad. Why do you think this is?” He laughed.
Walters had already broken barriers when she became the co-host of Today, but she was lured away from the show and NBC in 1976, when ABC hatched a plan to revitalize its evening newscast by pairing her with Reasoner. While she had signed a lucrative, $1 million-a-year deal — one that would make her the first female co-anchor of an evening newscast — her relationship with Reasoner was chilly.
“The studio was cold, and I was frozen out,” Walters said in a 2000 interview for the Archive for American Television. “Harry wasn’t mean. He was unhappy there and unhappy with me and, as we learned later, going through many things in his private life that none of us knew about at the time.”
The awkward co-anchor team lasted until Reasoner departed the network in 1978 for CBS, after which ABC abandoned the traditional evening news format in favor of World News Tonight, with a series of anchors from spots in the U.S. and Europe.
Although she no longer was co-anchoring the evening news, Walters hardly faded from the limelight on the network. Her contract included a series of up-close-and-personal specials, known as The Barbara Walters Specials, which became an instant ratings success when launched in 1976 with President-elect Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter, and Barbra Streisand and Jon Peters.
The special’s highlights were Walters’ ability to get celebrities, including many who seldom sat down for interviews, to open up about their personal lives. Though the years they featured Bing Crosby, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jackson, while she landed big “gets” for 20/20, including Monica Lewinsky in 1999. Cronkite himself sat down with Walters for an interview a couple years after he stepped down from the anchor chair in 1981.
Walters also got spoofed — on Saturday Night Live, Gilda Radner made fun of the way she pronounced her “R”s calling herself Baba Wawa. Johnny Carson made jokes about a question Walters posed to Katharine Hepburn, claiming she asked her, ‘If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?'” In fact, Walters was following up after Hepburn said she wanted to be a tree.
She later wrote that “to this day, I am ridiculed for asking what kind of tree she wanted to be. Doesn’t matter that she introduced the whole thing; I’m stuck with it.”
Her interviews did draw criticism. In 2000, Walters pushed pop star Ricky Martin to address rumors about his sexuality. “You could say, ‘Yes I am gay, or no I’m not,’” Walters said to him. He declined but later said that he felt traumatized by the experience, and Walters herself said that she regretted the question.
Barbara Jill Walters was born on Sept. 25, 1929, in Boston to Lou and Dena Walters. Her father was a nightclub producer and manager, giving her a glimpse of show business, and all of moments of triumph and turbulence, at a young age, as he moved the family to Miami and later New York.
After Walters graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, she got a job at an ad agency and later NBC’s New York affiliate, and she eventually began to produce programs in the early years of television of the 1950s. She eventually landed a job at NBC’s Today in 1961, working as a writer and researcher. That led to an on-air role, first with lighter segments as one of the Today Girls, as they were known, and eventually with more substantive material.
Her profile continued to rise throughout the 1960s, as she interviewed ever more famous figures, including first lady Lady Bird Johnson, Rose Kennedy and Princess Grace, while drawing ever more press attention. In 1967, she landed her first “serious and exclusive political interview,” as she put it, a sit-down with former Secretary of State Dean Rusk. By the time Downs left the show in 1971, she was, in everything but name, a co-host. But as she wrote, she was not even considered to succeed Downs “or any title that would give me a position of equality.”
“The prevailing wisdom was not only that the men watching at home but also the women would never accept a female in an authoritarian role,” she wrote. “The host had to be a man.”
She had a difficult relationship with Downs’ successor, Frank McGee, and did not actually get the co-host title until McGee’s death and he was replaced by Jim Hartz in 1974. ”A very satisfying title after sitting beside the male cohost on the morning desk at Today,” she wrote. “Ten years. Seems small by today’s standards, but in 1974, a breakthrough.”
It was. Walters retired from ABC News in 2014, but continued to make occasional appearances the next year, including an interview with then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Walters is survived by a daughter, Jacqueline “Jackie” Danforth, with her second husband Lee Guber, a producer with whom she was married in 1963 and divorced in 1976. Walters’ first marriage, to Robert Henry Katz in 1955, was annulled two years later. Walters also was married twice to real estate developer and producer Merv Adelson, divorcing for the second time in 1992.
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