NEW YORK — Don Hewitt, the CBS newsman who invented “60 Minutes” and produced the popular 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.
He made his mark 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 and Diane Sawyer 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.
After Cronkite’s death at 92 on July 17, Hewitt said, “How many news organizations get the chance to bask in the sunshine of a half-century of Edward R. Murrow followed by a half-century of Walter Cronkite?”
Hewitt often said the accepted wisdom for television news writers before “60 Minutes” was to put words to pictures. He believed that was backward.
A Sunday evening fixture, “60 Minutes” 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.
CBS News “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer recalls Hewitt saying that the show tip-toes to the edge between news and show business, “and I know right where that edge is.”
“Had he not been a television news producer, I think he would have been a circus ringmaster,” Schieffer said. “Just this great showman. Don Hewitt understood that to tell the news, to get people to understand what they need to know about, you have to get them into the tent.”
“You hear a lot of stories about him being flamboyant and being a showman, but he really was a great news editor, first and foremost,” said Jeff Fager, current “60 Minutes” executive producer. “He always had the ability to make a story better.”
“I learned everything from him,” Fager said.
Upon the launch of “60 Minutes,” Hewitt recalled that news executive Bill Leonard told him to “make us proud.”
“Which may well be the last time anyone ever said ‘make us proud’ to anyone else in television,” he wrote in his memoir. “Because Leonard said ‘make us proud’ and not ‘make us money,’ we were able to do both, which I think makes us unique in the annals of television.”
As executive producer, Hewitt was responsible for deciding each week which stories would make it on the air. Correspondents and producers alike would wait nervously in screening rooms for his verdict on their work.
Among his other jobs, Hewitt directed the first network television newscast on May 3, 1948. He originated the use of cue cards for news readers, now done by electronic machines. He was the first to superimpose words on the TV screen for a news show.
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 did not retire completely. In 2007, he produced a televised version of the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular,” bringing the venerable show to a national TV audience for the first time — on NBC.
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.
During his tenure, “60 Minutes” was often a place where people came to make news. Presidential candidate Bill Clinton addressed questions of infidelity in 1992, and Al Gore used the show to announce he wouldn’t run for president in 2004.
Hewitt often said he was proud of his show’s ability to exonerate innocent people through investigations, such as when a Texas man sent to jail for life for robbery was freed after Safer discredited the evidence against him.
When “60 Minutes” showed a tape of Dr. Jack Kevorkian lethally injecting a patient in 1998, it ignited a debate on euthanasia and the proper role of a TV news show.
Hewitt was the subject of an unflattering portrait in the 1999 movie “The Insider,” which depicted him caving to pressure from CBS lawyers and not airing a whistleblowing report about the tobacco industry. The full report eventually aired.
Although bitter at the former “60 Minutes” producer who became a hero of “The Insider” for fighting to air the story, Hewitt later said he wasn’t proud of his actions.
Hewitt had said he wanted to “die at my desk,” creating a delicate situation for CBS. The show’s ratings were declining and it had the oldest audience in television, as well as some of the oldest correspondents.
Hewitt, then 80, was persuaded to announce in January 2003 that he would step down at the conclusion of the 2003-04 season, which he did. In return, CBS gave him a contract that would pay him through age 90.
Hewitt had four children. Survivors include his wife of 30 years, Marilyn.