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Barbara Walters, news pioneer and ‘The View’ creator, dies

NEW YORK (AP) — Barbara Walters, the intrepid interviewer, host and program host who paved the way as the first woman to become television news superstar during a career remarkable for its length and diversity, has died. She was 93.

ABC paused to announce Walters’ death on the air Friday night.

“She lived her life with no regrets. She was a trailblazer not just for women journalists but for all women,” her publicist Cindi Berger said in a statement, adding that Walters died peacefully at her home in New York.

An ABC spokesman had no immediate comment Friday night, aside from a statement from Bob Iger, the CEO of ABC parent company The Walt Disney Company.

“Barbara was a true legend, a pioneer not just for women in journalism but for journalism itself,” Iger said.

During nearly four decades at ABC and before that at NBC, Walters’ exclusive interviews with rulers, kings and entertainers earned her celebrity status on par with hers and placed her at the forefront of the trend of TV reporters becoming stars.

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. With that 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. 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 more and more interviewers, including women journalists, were following her.

“I never expected that!” said Walters in 2004, taking stock of 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 when confronting personalities with burning questions.

“I’m not scared when I’m interviewing, I’m not scared!” Walters told The Associated Press 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 notions of majesty.

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

Shortly thereafter, what was considered by the eight writers on the staff to be the place of the iconic woman 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.”

Although she became famous herself, she was already familiar with the celebrity world when she was a little girl. 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.

Sensing more freedom and opportunity that 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 and ABC News, and then become entangled in third place. Meanwhile, Harry Reasoner, her veteran co-anchor of the ABC Evening News, is said to have resented her salary and celebrity orientation.

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 better-known shedders.

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.

Walters wrote a 2008 best-selling memoir, Audition, which surprised readers when it revealed a “long and difficult affair” with married US Senator Edward Brooke in the 1970s.

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.

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 that I have them.”

___

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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