The Best of Barbara Walters
Over more than six decades in television, Barbara Walters, who died Friday at 93, became best known for her one-on-one interviews. An integral part of whichever news show she was anchoring at a given time — or of her own “Barbara Walters Specials” — her interview style became one of the best known in broadcast journalism. Walters, sitting at camera right, quite close to her subject, extracted the kinds of juicy revelations that became her trademark, be they from a president or dictator, a movie star or murderer.
But Walters was more than just a celebrated interviewer. She spent most of her career as a broadcasting trailblazer — she was the first woman to anchor a network nightly news show and also helped popularize prime-time newsmagazines and daytime talk shows. Her final act on TV, as a creator and host of “The View,” established yet another TV template.
Here’s a look at some of the most memorable moments from her influential career.
Walters made her on-camera debut in 1955, standing in for a no-show swimsuit model on a long-gone CBS morning show. By 1961, she had landed a staff writing gig at the “Today” show, where she had opportunities to show off both her wit and her ability to handle hard news (following the Kennedy assassination).
Before Walters’s arrival, the morning show had a history of calling female staffers “Today Girls” and using them as purveyors of fluff. Walters broke away from that tradition by scoring exclusive interviews with national and international political figures (Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Prince Philip, Phyllis Schlafly) and showbiz celebrities (Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler). The blending of these two worlds would become Walters’s signature style. (She memorably asked Kissinger about reports of his being a swinging bachelor.)
Despite regularly appearing on the “Today” show for more than a decade, Walters wasn’t made an official co-host until 1974, when she became the first woman to earn that title. She left the program in 1976 without much on-air fanfare, possibly because she had been lured away by a very large offer from the rival network ABC, which was quite a controversy at the time.
Trailblazing talk show host
Want to know where Gilda Radner got her inspiration for her Baba Wawa caricature on “Saturday Night Live”? From watching Walters host an issues-oriented chat show called “Not For Women Only.”
In 1971, NBC asked Walters to take over as the host of “For Women Only,” a stodgy panel show that had been hosted by the former art critic Aline Saarinen. Walters agreed but wanted to revamp it by changing the name, goosing the program’s academic tone and embracing discussions of more personal interest to viewers. Soon the show covered provocative topics like the Equal Rights Amendment, sexual dysfunction and marijuana, and guests included inventors, soap opera writers and politicians’ wives, among them Barbara Bush and Mamie Eisenhower. Walters hosted the show for five years (eventually alternating weeks with Hugh Downs), turning it into a syndicated success seen in 80 cities that became a prototype for future shows by Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey and others as well as for Walters’s own later daytime hit, “The View.”
Walters’s move to ABC as the first female co-anchor of a nightly network newscast wasn’t universally applauded. Was she worth her new million-dollar contract? Her “ABC Evening News” co-host, Harry Reasoner, didn’t think so and rarely hid his contempt on-camera.
Eventually, ABC News executives decided not to show Reasoner and Walters side by side on-air — a split screen was used instead. They also began alternating the hosts’ days off and sent Walters into the field more often. She flourished away from the studio as a roving reporter and interviewer. In the late 1970s, she went to Cuba for an extensive interview with Fidel Castro (drawing the attention of the C.I.A. in the process) and spent time in Panama with the dictator Omar Torrijos as the Senate voted to cede his country control of the Panama Canal. She had multiple interviews with both the President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel, and in 1977 she convened a historic first joint interview with the two leaders. (Walters often cited this as the favorite of her interviews.)
Walters also was a moderator for presidential debates between Ford and Carter and Carter and Reagan, and she interviewed every president from Nixon to Donald J. Trump (when Trump was still a candidate). Walters also interviewed most of the first ladies from this era.
Despite all of this, critics for years continued to question whether she was a serious journalist. The answer was yes.
The Barbara Walters interview
At ABC, Walters began her signature prime-time specials, featuring lengthy interviews with heads of state and major celebrities, generally within intimate settings. (Steve Martin spoofed this strategy when he showed her a shack that he pretended was his home.)
Walters might break the ice with a question like, “What is the biggest misconception about you?” Or — and this did happen — “What kind of tree are you?” This question was posed during an interview with Katharine Hepburn, and Walters later got mocked for it. But she was only responding to Hepburn’s remark that she did, in fact, feel like a tree. The first of her specials, in 1976, featured President-elect Jimmy Carter and Barbra Streisand. Eventually, the programs became less political and more celebrity-driven. These high-profile conversations spawned multiple spinoffs, including nearly 30 years of highly rated Oscar-night programs, starting in 1981; the annual “10 Most Fascinating People” specials, starting in 1993; and a series of intermittent one-off interviews, such as with Patrick Swayze.
The interviews were often playful and enlivened by gimmicks — Walters rode a motorcycle with Sylvester Stallone, an elephant with Jimmy Stewart — but she also used her soft touch to ask hard questions. She confronted the shah of Iran about women’s ability to rule as his wife, the western-educated empress Farah Pahlavi, sat next to him. She asked Robin Givens if her husband Mike Tyson, who sat next to her, had ever hit her. (Givens filed for divorce soon after the interview.) Walters also pressed Sean Connery to explain his justification for slapping women.
Walters extended her focus to more accidental celebrities, including accused and convicted criminals like Patricia Hearst, Claus Von Bülow and Erik and Lyle Menendez. (Some of these interviews were repackaged for her “American Scandals” crime series on Hulu.) Her most-watched interview, in terms of ratings, was her 1999 sit-down for the newsmagazine series “20/20” with Monica Lewinsky, which had all the classic Walters ingredients: sex, scandal, politics, power, a pretty face and tears.
Some critics felt she had no sense of humor. But she was willing to poke fun at her reputation in appearances on “Saturday Night Live” and “The View.” As she once said on “Weekend Update,” “It is fine to make people smile, but the real money is in making them cry.”
Walters wasn’t part of the original “20/20” anchor team when the show started in 1978, but she joined it the following year. Over the next 25 years, she helped codify the relatively new nightly newsmagazine format — that now-familiar mix of hard news, investigative pieces and profiles of notable news figures. (In the beginning, these included celebrities, but Walters eventually began reserving those for her own specials.)
In 1980, she conducted a live, unedited interview with former President Richard Nixon. Walters continued pursuing big names — General Norman Schwarzkopf, a paralyzed Christopher Reeve, an indicted Martha Stewart and the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad among them — but she also began focusing on broader social issues. Although she didn’t give up her usual fascinations (political couples, royals, scandals), she looked beyond the famous (and the infamous) in themed shows about AIDS and its effect on children, about transgender children and about post-9/11 extremism in Saudi Arabia.
Walters reinvigorated her career in 1997 when she created “The View,” an update of “Not for Women Only” crossed with “This Week With David Brinkley.” Inspired partly by conversations with her daughter, “The View” centered on different types of women dissecting the issues of the day (“Hot Topics”) and spawned imitators like “The Talk” and “The Real.”
The behind-the-scenes drama — arguments, a revolving door of panelists, hosts storming off the air — has occasionally overshadowed the show itself. Throughout most of this, Walters played peacemaker, at least on air, and was able to lure high-profile guests onto the show. (Barack Obama became the first sitting president to appear on daytime TV when he visited “The View” in 2010.)
During her 17 years on the show, she also hammed it up — see her Halloween Marilyn Monroe impression — and took the occasional P.R. hit, as when she vocally defended Woody Allen against accusations by his daughter, Dylan Farrow. But she generally presided over the panel like the elder stateswoman she was, and in her final episode, in 2014, she scored the ultimate exclusive: a Barbara Walters interview with herself.