Barbara Walters, the pioneering television host who led the way for women in a male-dominated medium, died Friday. She was 93.
“Barbara Walters passed away peacefully at home surrounded by her loved ones,” said her representative, Cindi Berger. “She lived her life with no regrets. She was a trailblazer not just for women journalists, but for all women.”
Walters was known in recent years as the co-creator and matriarch of ABC’s hit daytime show “The View,” but older viewers remember her as the first female network news anchor and preeminent television interviewer. She earned that reputation with a penchant for meticulous preparation, whether she was interviewing despots or divas, models or assassins.
“I do a lot of homework, I know more about the person than he or she knows about themselves,” Walters said in a 2014 television special.
That drive turned out to be essential to his success. When she broke into the business in 1961 as a writer on NBC’s “TODAY” show, the idea of a woman sitting down and interviewing a sitting president on network prime-time television (which she did for a little over a decade) later) seemed more fantasy than reality in an industry dominated by men like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.
“She was playing in a field that was a network of older kids, literally and figuratively, and she wasn’t taking no for an answer,” Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, told NBC. . News before Walters’ death.
“At some point, the things that had been a drag on her, being a woman trying to establish herself in a male-dominated industry, started to turn into an asset,” Thompson said. “She was smart and prepared, but at the same time she was more compassionate (than her male peers).
“Barbara Walters proved to be the evolutionary step between Edward R. Murrow and Oprah Winfrey.”
Somehow, Walters had been preparing for these characteristic interviews all his life. Born in Boston on September 25, 1929, Barbara Jill Walters was first introduced to the rich and famous as the daughter of nightlife businessman 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 it should put me off.”
Inheriting his father’s drive, Walters graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a BA in English and got his start in 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 became the show’s sole producer and began appearing on air occasionally as the “TODAY girl,” a reporter role reserved for fashion shows, lifestyle trends and weather that was previously in the hands of, among others, Florence Henderson of “Brady Bunch” fame.
Hardly the kind of hard-nosed reporting that Walters clearly aspired to.
Off the air, Walters married stage 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 breakthrough came with an assignment to travel with Jacqueline Kennedy on the first lady’s trip to India in 1962. That led to more news and an increased status of co-hosting responsibilities alongside Hugh Downs, though not got official recognition. title until 1974. By this time, Downs had left the network and was succeeded by Frank McGee.
McGee, who died shortly after partnering with Walters, demanded that he ask three questions to each of Walter’s studio interviews. He was real news.men, after all.
Walters then began conducting interviews outside of the studio, quickly earning a reputation as an incisive and probing questioner.
People were watching, including executives from rival chains. Walters was lured to ABC to become the first female co-anchor of a prime time news broadcast with an unprecedented $1 million annual salary. However, it didn’t take long for viewers to feel the tension between Walters and co-anchor Harry Reasoner, who didn’t bother to hide her disdain for this former “TODAY girl” being heralded as her equal.
Her new celeb also got the ultimate backhand honor: Gilda Radner satirizing her difficulties pronouncing strong Rs on “Saturday Night Live.” Walters later admitted that he did not find the “Baba Wawa” parodies funny.
With the ratings for his ABC news show disappointing, Walters’ career was saved by the prime time talk specials he started for ABC. His first interview featured President-elect Jimmy Carter, and within a year he secured a joint interview with Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, a year before their landmark peace treaty.
In 1979 he reunited with Downs on the ABC news magazine show “20/20”, beginning a successful 25-year career.
But it was his interviews that remained Walters’ passion, compiling his mix of tricky and funny questions on his trademark 3×5 tiles and fretting over order even after the cameras started rolling. In the 2014 television special commemorating his retirement from broadcast journalism, Walters displayed an autographed photo of Cuban despot Fidel Castro that hung on his wall: “For the longest and most difficult interview I’ve ever done in my life.”
Although Walters received a lot of criticism for asking Katherine Hepburn, “What kind of tree are you?” —To be fair, a continuation of something the legendary actress had said—she could ask the toughest questions, like looking Russian President Vladimir Putin in the eye and asking if he had ever ordered the death of a rival.
His exclusive interview with Monica Lewinsky in 1999 garnered the highest ratings ever for a prime time interview. In 1997, Walters debuted a new show that was closer to her “TODAY” roots: a mid-morning talk show with an all-female panel called “The View.” While she was co-executive producer and had a seat at the table, she named Meredith Vieira as the first moderator.
Over the years, the hit show would include Whoopi Goldberg, Star Jones, Lisa Ling, Joy Behar, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Rosie O’Donnell, and Meghan McCain among the panelists.
While Walters largely managed to avoid controversy over her long career, she caused a stir with the revelation that she had had an affair with Sen. Edward Brooke, R-Massachusetts, during the 1970s.
After nearly 60 years in journalism, Walters announced that he was retiring in 2014.
“I don’t want to appear on another show or climb another mountain,” he said. “Instead, I want to sit in a sunny field and admire the very talented women, and okay, some men too, who will take my place.”