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Barbara Walters, dead at 93, was cultural fixture, TV icon

NEW YORK (AP) — Barbara Walters was TV’s rarest personality: a cultural luminary.

NEW YORK (AP) — Barbara Walters was TV’s rarest personality: a cultural luminary.

For more than half a century she has been on the air, introducing her audience to world figures, great personalities and celebrities whose names and faces may have changed from year to year. But hers never did.

She first found her way to prominence in a visually oriented business where women were typically jewelry or otherwise secondary.

And there it stayed, staying long enough and reliable to serve as a reliable point of reference: what Barbara was thinking, what she was saying, and most importantly, what she was asking the people she interviewed.

“I’m thinking about death,” she told The Associated Press in 2008 as she ended her eighth decade. But if death has the last word, Walters has the ears of the nation by now, she clarified with amusement, recalling the mad Broadway hit “Spamalot,” which is based on a Monty Python film.

“You know that scene where they’re collecting bodies during a plague and there’s a guy they keep throwing on the pile and he keeps saying, ‘I’m not dead yet’? Then they hit him on the head and he gets up again and says, ‘I’m not dead yet!’

“He’s my hero,” Walters said with a smile.

Walters, whose death at the age of 93 was announced on Friday, was a heroic presence on the television screen and became the first woman to become a television news superstar during a career notable for its length and diversity.

Late in her career, she gave infotainment a new twist with The View, a live weekday ABC coffee gossip with an all-female panel for which every topic was on the table, and guests ranged from world leaders to teenage idols welcomed. A side project and unexpected hit, Walters considered The View the “dessert” of her career.

Walters made headlines in 1976 as the network’s first female news anchor with an unprecedented $1 million gasping salary.

During nearly four decades at ABC and before that at NBC, Walters’ exclusive interviews with rulers, kings and entertainers earned her a celebrity status that rivaled hers, while also placing her at the forefront of the trend in broadcast journalism that was making TV reporters stars and put news programs in the race for higher ratings.

Her drive was legendary as she competed – not just with competing networks, but with peers in her own network – for every major “win” in a world where there were a growing number of interviewers, including journalists who were of her own followed the path they had chosen.

“I never expected that!” Walters said in 2004, measuring her success. “I always thought I was going to be a writer for television. I never thought I would be in front of a camera.”

But she was a natural in front of the camera, especially pestering personalities with questions.

“I’m not scared when I’m interviewing, I’m not scared!” Walters told the AP in 2008.

In a voice that never lost track of her native Boston accent or its Ws-for-Rs substitution, Walters threw out blunt and sometimes dizzying questions, often laced with a hushed, awed speech.

“Offscreen, do you like you?” She once asked actor John Wayne, while Lady Bird Johnson was asked if she was jealous of her late husband’s reputation as a womanizer.

In May 2014, she taped her final episode of “The View” amid a grand ceremony and gathering of dozens of luminaries to end a five-decade television career (although she continued to make occasional television appearances). During a commercial break, a bevy of television journalists she had paved the way for – including Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Robin Roberts and Connie Chung – posed with her for a group portrait.

“I have to remember that on my bad days,” Walters said softly, “because that’s for the best.”

Her career began without such signs of majesty.

Walters graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1943 and eventually landed on “Today” for a “temporary” stint behind the scenes in 1961.

Shortly thereafter, among the eight authors of the staff, what was seen as the place of the iconic woman was opened. Walters got the job and began airing occasional offbeat stories like “A Day in the Life of a Nun” or The Troubles of a Playboy Bunny. For the latter, she wore bunny ears and heels to work at the Playboy Club.

As she appeared more frequently, she was spared the title “Today Girl” that had been attached to her symbolic female predecessors. But she had to pay her dues and sometimes sprinted between interviews on the Today set to do dog food commercials.

She had the first interview with Rose Kennedy after the assassination of her son Robert, as well as Princess Grace of Monaco, President Richard Nixon and many others. She traveled to India with Jacqueline Kennedy, to China and Iran with Nixon to cover the Shah’s gala party. But they suffered a setback in 1971 with the arrival of a new host, Frank McGee. Though they could share the desk, he insisted she wait for him to ask three questions before she could open her mouth during joint interviews with “influential people.”

Despite growing into a celebrity herself, she was familiar with the celebrity world from a young age. Her father was an English-born booking agent who turned an old Boston church into a nightclub. Lou Walters opened more clubs in Miami and New York, and young Barbara spent her after-hours with regulars like Joseph Kennedy and Howard Hughes.

Those were the good times. But her father made and lost fortunes in a dizzying cycle that taught that her success was always in danger of being stolen from her, and could never be trusted or enjoyed. She also described a “lonely, isolated childhood.”

Sensing that more freedom and opportunity awaited her outside of the studio, she set out to produce more exclusive interviews for the program, including Nixon Chief of Staff HR Haldeman.

By 1976, she was granted the title of co-host of “Today” and was making $700,000 a year. But when ABC signed her to a five-year, $5 million deal, she was branded “the million dollar baby.”

Reports failed to mention that her professional responsibilities would be split between the network’s entertainment division (for which she was assigned to do interview specials) and ABC News, which then came in third. Meanwhile, Harry Reasoner, her veteran co-anchor of the ABC Evening News, is said to have resented her salary and celebrity orientation.

“Harry didn’t want a partner,” Walters summarized. “Even though he was horrible to me, I don’t think he disliked me.”

Not only the shaky relationship with her co-moderator brought Walters problems.

Comedian Gilda Radner taunted her on the new Saturday Night Live as a rhotacist commentator named “Baba Wawa.” And after her interview with newly-elected President Jimmy Carter, in which Walters told Carter “be wise with us,” CBS correspondent Morley Safer publicly mocked her as “the first female pope to bless the new cardinal.”

It was a time that seemed to mark the end of everything she had worked for, she later recalled.

“I thought it was all over: ‘How stupid of me to ever have left NBC!'”

But salvation came in the form of a new boss, ABC News President Roone Arledge, who pushed her out of the co-anchor slot and into special projects for ABC News. Meanwhile, she’s found success with her quarterly primetime interview specials. She was a regular contributor to ABC’s 20/20 news magazine and became a co-anchor in 1984. A perennial favorite was her review of this year’s “10 Most Fascinating People.”

By the time she resigned from 20/20 in 2004, she had conducted more than 700 interviews with everyone from Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Moammar Gaddafi to Michael Jackson, Erik and Lyle Menendez and Elton John. Her two-hour talk with Monica Lewinsky in 1999, timed to coincide with the former White House intern’s memoir about her affair with President Bill Clinton, drew more than 70 million viewers and is among the highest-rated television interviews in history.

A particular favorite for Walters was Katharine Hepburn, although an exchange in 1981 led to one of her most ridiculous questions: “What kind of tree are you?”

Walters would later argue that the question made perfect sense in the context of their conversation. Hepburn had compared himself to a tree, prompting Walters to ask what kind of tree she was (“Oak” was the reply). Walters pleaded guilty to being “terribly sentimental” at times and was famous for making her subjects cry, with Oprah Winfrey and Ringo Starr being among the more famous tear makers.

But her work was also highly praised. She won a Peabody Award for her interview with Christopher Reeve shortly after the 1995 horseback riding accident that left him paralyzed. But the interview that Walters singled out as her most memorable was the one with Bob Smithdas, a teacher and poet with a master’s degree who was deaf and blind since childhood. In 1998, Walters profiled him and his wife Michelle, also deaf and blind.

Walters wrote a 2008 best-selling memoir, Audition, which surprised readers when, in the 1970s, she had a “long and difficult affair” with married U.S. Senator Edward Brooke, a Massachusetts Republican who was the first black person to become popular. unveiled US Senate election.

“I knew it was something that could have ruined my career,” Walters said shortly after her book was published.

Walters’ self-disclosure reached another high point in May 2010 when she announced on The View that she would be undergoing heart surgery days later. She would feature her successful surgery — and those of other celebrities, including Clinton and David Letterman — in a primetime special, “A Matter of Life and Death.”

Walter’s first marriage, to businessman Bob Katz, was annulled after a year. Her 1963 marriage to theater owner Lee Guber, with whom she adopted a daughter, ended in divorce after 13 years. Her five-year marriage to producer Merv Adelson ended in divorce in 1990.

Walters is survived by their daughter, Jacqueline Danforth.

“I hope that I will be remembered as a good and courageous journalist. I hope some of my interviews didn’t make history but witnessed history, even though I know that title was used,” she told the AP after leaving The View. “I think when I look back at what I’ve done I have a great feeling of accomplishment. I don’t want to sound proud and haughty, but I think I’ve just had a wonderful career and I’m so thrilled to have it.”


Moore, a longtime Associated Press television writer who retired in 2017, was the lead writer on this obituary. Associated Press journalists Stefanie Dazio and Alicia Rancilio contributed to this report.

Frazier Moore, The Associated Press

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