New York — Don Hewitt, a TV news pioneer who created “60 Minutes” and produced the popular CBS newsmagazine for 36 years, died Wednesday. He was 86.
He died of pancreatic cancer at his Bridgehampton home, CBS said. His death came a month after that of fellow CBS legend Walter Cronkite.
Hewitt joined CBS News in television’s infancy in 1948, and produced the first televised presidential debate in 1960.
His lasting legacy took shape in the late 1960s when CBS agreed to try his idea of a one-hour broadcast that mixed hard news and feature stories. The television newsmagazine was born on Sept. 24, 1968, when the “60 Minutes” stopwatch began ticking.
He dreamed of a television version of Life, the dominant magazine of the mid-20th century, where interviews with entertainers could co-exist with investigations that exposed corporate malfeasance.
“The formula is simple,” he wrote in a memoir in 2001, “and it’s reduced to four words every kid in the world knows: Tell me a story. It’s that easy.”
Hard-driven reporter Mike Wallace, Hewitt’s first hire, became the journalist those in power did not want on their doorsteps. Harry Reasoner, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, Steve Kroft, Diane Sawyer and Dan Rather were among others who also reported for the show.
“60 Minutes” won 73 Emmys, 13 DuPont/Columbia University Awards and nine Peabody Awards during Hewitt’s stewardship, which ended in 2004.
It was television journalism’s best show ever, said CBS Corp. chief executive Leslie Moonves. “To me, the creation of ‘60 Minutes’ was truly genius,” he said.
As a television executive, Moonves could take comfort in scheduling a Sunday evening fixture that finished among Nielsen’s top 10 for 23 straight years. It was television’s top-rated show four times, most recently in 1992-93. While no longer a regular in the top 10 in Hewitt’s later years, it was still TV’s most popular newsmagazine.
“Most people think about Don as the creator of ‘60 Minutes,’ in fact he was one of the inventors of broadcast journalism,” Kroft said. “There isn’t a news show on television that doesn’t have Don Hewitt’s DNA in it.”
Donald Shepard Hewitt was born in New York on Dec. 14, 1922, and grew up in the suburb of New Rochelle. He dropped out of New York University to become a copy boy at the New York Herald Tribune. He joined the Merchant Marines during World War II and worked as a correspondent posted to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s London headquarters.
After the war and a few brief journalism jobs, he took a job as an associate director at CBS News in 1948.
Before the 1960 presidential debate, Hewitt asked John F. Kennedy if he wanted makeup. Tanned and fit, Kennedy said no. Richard Nixon followed his lead. Big mistake.
“As every student of politics knows, that debate — like a Miss America contest — turned on who made the better appearance, not with what he said but with how he looked,” Hewitt recalled later. “Kennedy won hands down.”
Hewitt is survived by his wife of 30 years, journalist Marilyn Berger, two sons from his first marriage and two daughters from his second marriage. Berger, who worked for The New York Times, The Washington Post and NBC, was his third wife.
The funeral will be private. CBS will devote “60 Minutes” this weekend to Hewitt.