NEW YORK (AP) — Barbara Walters is the rarest kind of TV personality: a cultural fixture.
For more than half a century, she has been live-streaming, bringing before her audience the people, moguls and celebrities from around the world, whose names and faces may change every year. But hers never did.
She first found her way in a visually-oriented industry where women are often an ornament or otherwise secondary.
She stayed there, for so long, and reliably became a trusted reference point: what Barbara thought, what she said, and especially what she asked of the people she interviewed.
“I did think about death,” she told The Associated Press in 2008, wrapping up her eight decades. But if death was the final word, Walters would simultaneously command national attention, she made clear when she recalled the hilarious Broadway hit “Spamalot” based on the Monty Python film.
“You know the scene where they collect bodies during the plague, and they keep throwing a guy in the garbage and he keeps saying, ‘I’m not dead’? not dead! “
“He’s my hero,” Walters said with a laugh.
Walters, who was announced dead Friday at the age of 93, was a television screen hero whose career as the first woman to become a TV news superstar was notable for its duration and variety.
Later in her career, she brought a new twist to infotainment with “The View,” a live ABC weekday kaffee klatsch featuring an all-female panel where any topic was on the table, And welcome guests ranging from world leaders to teen idols. A side project and an unexpected hit, Walters counts “The View” as the “sweet spot” of her career.
Walters hit the headlines in 1976 when she became the first female network news anchor with a jaw-dropping $1 million salary, an unprecedented one.
During her nearly four years on ABC, and before that on NBC, Walters’ celebrity status stood alongside them with exclusive interviews with rulers, royals and entertainers, All the while keeping her at the forefront of trends in broadcast journalism, making TV journalists stars and putting news shows in the race for higher ratings.
In a world crowded with ever-growing numbers of interviewers, including female journalists following in the footsteps she blazed, competing not only with rival networks but with colleagues from her own network, her drive is legendary.
“I didn’t expect this!” Walters said in 2004, gauging her success. “I always thought I was going to be a TV writer. I never even thought I’d be in front of the camera.”
But she’s a natural in front of the camera, especially when it comes to quizzing celebrities.
“I’m not afraid when I interview, I’m not afraid of anything!” Walters told The Associated Press in 2008.
In a voice that never loses her native Boston accent or Ws-for-Rs, Walters asks blunt, sometimes dizzying questions, often sugar-coated in a quiet, respectful tone.
“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, “The View,” ending her five-year television career in a scene of many ceremonies and gatherings of dozens of celebrities (although she continues to make occasional TV appearances). During commercial breaks, she paved the way for a group of female TV news reporters — including Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Robin Roberts and Kang Connie Chung – took a photo with her.
“On bad days, I have to remember that,” Walters said calmly, “because it’s the best.”
There were no signs of such majesty at the start of her career.
Walters graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1943 and eventually landed a “temporary” behind-the-scenes assignment on the “Today” show in 1961.
Shortly after that, positions opened up among the eight writers on staff who were considered emblematic women. Walters got the job and started appearing on the radio occasionally, telling offbeat stories like “A Day in the Life of a Nun” or the ordeal of the Playboy Bunny. For the latter, she donned bunny ears and high heels to work at the Playboy Club.
As she appeared more frequently, she dispensed with her symbolic female predecessors from the “Girl of the Day” title. But she has to pay the price, sometimes rushing through the “Today” show to shoot dog food commercials between interviews.
She was interviewed for the first time by Rose Kennedy after her son Robert was assassinated, along 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 king’s lavish party. But she encountered a setback in 1971 with the arrival of a new host, Frank McGee. Although they could sit at the same table, in a joint interview with a “powerful person,” he insisted that she wait until he asked three questions before she could speak.
Although she has grown into a celebrity in her own right, the world of celebrity has been familiar to her since 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 other clubs in Miami and New York, where young Barbara spent after hours with regulars such as Joseph Kennedy and Howard Hughes.
Those were good times. But her father’s dizzying cycle of making and losing wealth taught her that success was always at risk of being snatched away, neither to be trusted nor to be enjoyed. She also described a “lonely, isolated childhood”.
Realizing that greater freedom and opportunity awaited her outside the studio, she hit the road and produced more exclusive interviews for the show, including Nixon Chief of Staff HR Haldeman.
By 1976, she was co-anchor of “Today,” earning $700,000 a year. But when ABC signed her to a five-year, $5 million deal, she was labeled a “million dollar baby.”
The report didn’t mention that her job duties would be split between the network’s entertainment arm (for which she was supposed to do an interview special) and ABC News, which would then come in third. Meanwhile, her veteran “ABC Nightly News” co-anchor Harry Reasoner is said to be unhappy with her salary and celebrity orientation.
“Harry doesn’t want a partner,” Walters concluded. “As bad as he was to me, I don’t think he doesn’t like me.”
It wasn’t just a rocky relationship with her co-anchor that caused problems for Walters.
Comedian Gilda Radner teases her as a psychotic commentator named “Baba Wawa” on her new “Saturday Night Live.” And after her interview with a newly elected President Jimmy Carter in which Walters told Carter “be wise with us,” CBS correspondent Morley Safer publicly derided her as “the first female pope blessing the new cardinal.”
That time, she later recalled, seemed to mark the end of everything she had worked so hard for.
“I thought it was over: ‘I was so stupid for leaving NBC!'”
But redemption came in the form of a new boss, ABC News president Roone Arledge, who moved her from the co-anchor position to special projects for ABC News. Meanwhile, she found success with her quarterly prime-time interview specials. She is a frequent contributor to ABC’s newsmagazine 20/20 and became co-anchor in 1984. A perennial favorite is her review of the year’s “10 Most Attractive People.”
By 2004, when she stepped down from 20/20, she had documented more than 700 interviews, from Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Muammar Gaddafi, to Michael Jackson, Eric and Lyle Menendez and Elton John. In 1999, her two-hour conversation with Monica Lewinsky, timed for the former White House intern’s memoir about her affair with President Bill Clinton, captivated more than 70 million viewers, one of the most watched TV interviews in history.
Walters is particularly fond of Katharine Hepburn, though an exchange in 1981 led to one of her funniest questions: “What kind of tree are you?”
Walters later countered that the question made perfect sense in the context of their conversation. Hepburn compares herself to a tree, which leads Walters to ask what kind of tree she is (“oak tree” is the response). Walters did declare herself to be “very sentimental” at times, and was known for making her subjects cry, with Oprah Winfrey and Ringo Starr being more famous weepers.
But her work has also received high marks. She won a Peabody Award for interviewing Christopher Reeve shortly after a riding accident in 1995 left him paralyzed. But what Walters considers her most memorable interview was with Bob Smithdas, a teacher and poet with a master’s degree who grew up deaf and blind. In 1998, Walters introduced him and his wife, Michelle, who is also deaf and blind.
In her best-selling 2008 memoir, Audition, Walters revealed a “long and rocky affair” with married U.S. Senator Edward Brooke in the 1970s, leaving readers Surprised. U.S. Senate elections.
“I knew it could ruin my career,” Walters said shortly after her book was published.
Walters’ self-disclosure reached another benchmark in May 2010, when she announced on “The View” that she would undergo heart surgery days later. She will show off her successful surgery — along with operations on other celebrities, including Clinton and David Letterman — in the primetime special “Life and Death.”
Walters’ first marriage to businessman Bob Katz was annulled a year later. She married theater owner Lee Guber in 1963 and adopted a daughter, but ended in divorce 13 years later. Her five-year marriage to producer Merv Adelson ended in divorce in 1990.
Walters is survived by a daughter, Jacqueline Danforth.
“I hope people will remember me as a good and courageous reporter. I hope some of my interviews don’t make history, but witness history, even though I know that title has been used,” she said in “The View” ’” he told The Associated Press after retiring. “I think when I see what I’ve done, I get a great sense of accomplishment. I don’t want to sound proud and arrogant, but I think my career is just right and I’m really excited about what I’ve accomplished .”
Moore, a longtime AP television writer who retired in 2017, was the lead author of the obituary. Associated Press reporters Stefanie Dazio and Alicia Rancilio contributed to this report.
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