Barbara Walters, the daring interviewer, anchor and program host who led the way as the first woman to become a television news star during a career remarkable in its length and variety, has died. She was 93 years old.
Walters’ death was announced by ABC on air Friday night.
“Barbara Walters passed away peacefully in her home surrounded by her loved ones. She lived her life without regrets. She was a pioneer not only for female journalists, but for all women,” Cindy Berger also said in a statement.
An ABC spokesperson had no immediate comment Friday night other than to share a statement from Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company, which owns ABC.
During her nearly four decades at ABC, and before that at NBC, Walters’ exclusive interviews with judges, royalty, and entertainers have brought her celebrity status tidy with their lives, while putting her at the forefront of a trend in broadcast journalism that has made television reporters stars. And it brought news programs into the race for higher ratings.
Walters made headlines in 1976 as the network’s first female news anchor, with an unprecedented $1 million annual salary that gasped. Her drive was legendary as she competed—not just with rival networks, but with colleagues in her own network—for every big “get” in a world crowded with more and more interviewers, including female journalists who followed the trail she launched.
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“I never expected this!” Measuring its success, Walters said in 2004. “I always thought I’d be a writer for TV. I never thought I’d be in front of a camera.”
But she was a natural on camera, especially when fielding questions to notables.
“I’m not afraid when I’m doing an interview, I’m not afraid!” Walters told the Associated Press in 2008.
In a voice that never lost track of her original Boston accent or replaced it with Ws-for-Rs, Walters delivered blunt, sometimes rambling questions on every subject, often smearing them with softness and reverence.
“Off screen, do you like it?” I once asked actor John Wayne, while Mrs. Bird Johnson was asked if she was jealous of her late husband’s reputation as a ladies’ man.
Late in her career, in 1997, she gave infotainment a new twist with “The View,” an ABC daily café clutch with an all-women-themed panel on the table who welcomed guests from world leaders to teen idols. A side project and unexpected hit, Walters considered “The View” the “candy” of her career.
In May 2014, she taped the final episode of “The View” amid great celebration and dozens of stars gathered to end five decades in television (although she has continued to appear on occasion on television after that). During a commercial break, the horde of TV magnates who paved the way for her — including Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Robin Roberts, and Connie Chung — posed for a group photo with her.
“I have to remember this on bad days,” said Walters quietly, “because this is the best.”
She started her career with no such signs of majesty.
In 1961, NBC hired her for a short-term writing project on the “Today” show. Shortly thereafter, what was seen as the symbolic women’s slot among the eight staff writers was opened, and Walters got the job. Then she began to appear occasionally on the air with offbeat stories like “A Day in the Life of a Nun” or the ordeals of the Playboy Bunny. For the latter, she donned bunny ears and high heels to work at the Playboy Club.
When she appeared more frequently, she was excused from the “Girl of the Day” moniker that was associated with her iconic predecessors. But she had to pay her dues, sometimes speeding across the “Today” set between interviews to do dog food commercials.
She gave the first interview with Rose Kennedy after the assassination of her son Robert, as well as with Princess Grace of Monaco, President Richard Nixon and many others. She traveled to India with Jacqueline Kennedy, to China with Nixon, and to Iran to cover the Shah’s concert. But it faced a setback in 1971 with the arrival of a new host, Frank McGee. Although they could share an office, he insisted she wait for him to ask three questions before she could open her mouth during joint interviews with “powerful people”.
Feeling more freedom and the opportunities that were waiting for her outside the studio, she hit the road and produced more exclusive interviews for the show, including to Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman.
By 1976, she had earned the title of co-host on “Today” and was earning $700,000 a year. But when ABC signed her to a five-year, $5 million contract, the salary figure called her the “million dollar baby.”
Reports of her deal failed to note that her job duties would be split between the network’s entertainment division (for which she was expected to do interviews of her own) and ABC News, then mired in the third spot. Meanwhile, her veteran “ABC Evening News” associate Harry Reasoner was said to have resented her high salary and celebrity orientation.
Walters summed up: “Harry didn’t want a partner.” “Even though he was awful to me, I don’t think he hated me.”
It wasn’t just the shaky relationship with her co-anchor that got Walters into trouble.
Comedian Gilda Radner parodied her on the new “Saturday Night Live” as a fictional commentator named “Baba Wawa.” And after her interview with newly elected President Jimmy Carter in which Walters told Carter to “Be wise with us,” CBS reporter Morley Safire openly derided her as “the first woman to bless the new cardinal.”
It was a period that seemed to mark the end of everything I had worked for, as she would later recall.
It was all over, I thought: “How stupid that I left NBC!” “
But salvation arrived in the form of a new boss, ABC News president Roone Arledge, who moved it from a place of providing assistance to special projects for ABC News. Meanwhile, she found success with her own quarterly prime-time interview special. She became a frequent contributor to the ABC news magazine “20/20”, joining then-host Hugh Downs, and in 1984, she became co-host. An all-time favorite was her review of the year’s “10 Most Fascinating People”.
Walters is survived by her only daughter, Jacqueline Danforth.
Moore, a longtime Associated Press television writer who retired in 2017, was the lead writer for this obituary. Associated Press journalist Stephanie Dazio contributed to this report from Los Angeles.
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