Barbara Walters Dies At 93

By Terrance Turner

Dec. 30, 2022

Legendary journalist and trailblazer Barbara Walters has died. She was 93.

Her publicist confirmed the news in a statement, writing that Walters died peacefully at her home. “Barbara Walters passed away peacefully in her home surrounded by loved ones. She lived her life with no regrets. She was a trailblazer not only for female journalists, but for all women,” said publicist Cindi Berger in a statement.

Life and Career

Barbara Jill Walters was born on Sept. 25, 1929, in Boston, Massachusetts. Her father worked in show business as a booking agent and nightclub promoter, according to ABC News. (He discovered Jack Haley, who played the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz”.) Growing up around celebrities, she said, taught her not to be admiring but not awed by or fearful of them.

She studied at schools in New York, Boston and Miami, as her family moved during her childhood. She earned a degree in English from Sarah Lawrence College in 1953. Afterward, she worked as a publicists and writer. She worked as an assistant to publicity director Tex McCary at New York City’s NBC affiliate. And she became a writer for the Morning Show at CBS in 1955.

“Today”

In 1961, Walters joined NBC’s “Today” show as a writer and researcher. Initially her job was to write for the on-camera “today girl”, typically an actress or pageant winner. (She called them “tea pourers”.) At first, she made only occasional appearances on the air. But she became indelible.

According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, “Walters turned the role of the pretty, smiling small-talker into an essential part of the program. Before long she was reading news and acting as a commentator.”

TODAY — Pictured: (l-r) NBC News’ Jack Lescoulie, Hugh Downs, Barbara Walters report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 23, 1963 — Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank
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In 1971, Hugh Downs left the program. He was replaced by Frank McGee, a former evening news anchor who felt “Today” was a demotion. Walters wrote that he gave the show gravitas by instituting daily interviews with Washington politicians and newsmakers. But he also wanted Walters to be put in her place.

McGee felt her role “should be restricted to, as he called them, the ‘girlie’ interviews,” Walters wrote in her memoir Audition. “Frank would get to ask the first three questions in the ‘Powerful Person’ interviews. When he was finished, if there was any time, I would be allowed to ask the fourth question.” To make matter worse, “NBC was paying Frank twice as much as they were paying me.”

Co-hosting

But Walters held on, continuing to work each day while pursuing her own interviews. In 1972, she established herself enough to be part of the press corps that accompanied President Richard Nixon on his historic trip to China.

Additionally, she also landed interviews with Golda Meir and Coretta Scott King. In 1974, McGee left the show and died of cancer shortly afterward. Walters was named the first female co-host of “Today” in 1974. The next year, she won an Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Host.

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ABC

As her success mounted, Walters got a tempting offer. ABC offered her an unprecedented $1 million salary: $500,000 for co-anchoring and another $500,000 for a series of one-hour specials. She took the gig. In 1976, Walters joined ABC’s Evening News, making history as the first female co-host of an evening news program.

Walters with her co-anchor Harry Reasoner. Photo from ABC News.
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It was a major opportunity and a breakthrough for women in news. But it came with a price. Once again, Walters found herself at odds with an unfriendly male co-worker. Walters’ co-host Harry Reasoner didn’t want a partner. And he let her know it.

The tension with Reasoner unsettled Walters. But it wasn’t personal. Walters told the Archive of American Television that she knew Reasoner beforehand and enjoyed a friendly rapport: “We were pals. I thought he was very wry and amusing and charming […] Years later, after leaving ABC, he wrote a book. He wrote an autobiography. And I did an interview with him for the Today show. And he said, ‘I never disliked you personally.’ But he didn’t want a partner. He was unhappy at ABC. And he was saddled with this woman.”

The tension spilled over off-set, too. “Harry would crack jokes with the crew and they with him. I was invisible,” she wrote in Audition. “Then he would go across the street to the bar […] to have a few drinks with the guys before the broadcast. They’d have a fine time bad-mouthing me to everyone within hearing. Some of the people with big ears thought they were doing me a favor by telling me the disparaging things Harry and his gang were saying about me, that I was a disaster, that I was dragging the program down.”

Barbara Walters Specials

Thankfully, Walters was able to establish herself as an interviewer with her one-hour specials. In 1976, she launched the first of several Barbara Walters Specials, featuring Barbra Streisand (who had just done “A Star Is Born”). Walters also interviewed President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

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The next year, Walters interviewed comedienne Lucille Ball, who spoke frankly about her marriage and divorce to Desi Arnaz, plus the prejudice he faced for being Cuban.

Also on the 1977 special, Walters conducted the first join interview between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The two were involved in peace talks aimed at lessening tensions between Israeli and Arab nations. A year later, President Jimmy Carter brokered a landmark peace treaty known as the Camp David Accords.

Walt Disney Television via Getty Images NEWS – 11/20/77 BARBARA WALTERS arranged a joint interview with Egypt’s President ANWAR SADAT and Israel’s Prime Minister MENACHEM BEGIN for Walt Disney Television via Getty Images News. (Photo by Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images Photo Archives via Getty Images)
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Transition & “20/20”

In 1978, the tension between Walters and Reasoner had become untenable, and ABC released her after just two seasons. But in 1979, Barbara Walters joined former “Today” co-host Hugh Downs on ABC’s newsmagazine program 20/20. She was a part-time correspondent at first, but became a regular contributor in 1981. Walters was promoted to co-host in 1984 (she’d won an Emmy for her Specials the year before.) She held on to the co-hosting job until 1999, when Downs retired. She continued to host 20/20 (mostly solo) until 2004.

On 20/20, Walters had some of her most memorable interviews. In 1986, she interviewed President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan, continuing a trend that she’d started a decade before. Walters interviewed every president and first lady from Nixon to Obama.

Memorable Moments

In 1988, Walters interviewed actress Robin Givens and boxer Mike Tyson. It was a revealing look inside their abusive marriage. With Tyson sitting right next to her, Givens described their life together as “torture. Pure hell. Worse than anything I could possibly imagine.”

“He’s got a side to him that’s scary,” Givens said.

“Does he hit you?” Walters asked.

Givens answered: “He shakes. He pushes. He swings. Sometimes I think he’s trying to scare me.” (She filed for divorce a week later.)

THE BARBARA WALTERS SPECIAL – 9/28/88 Barbara Walters interviewed heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson and his wife, actress Robin Givens, on “The Barbara Walters Special,” airing on the Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Television Network. Givens described her eight-month marriage as “pure hell” and “worse than anything I could possibly imagine,” as Tyson listened. A week after the interview aired, the actress filed for divorce. (Photo by Robert Maass/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)
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Another memorable interview came in 1995, when Walters interviewed actor Christopher Reeve. He was famous for starring in the title character in the “Superman” film series; he played a superhero whose strength knew no bounds. But he suffered severe spinal injuries after a horseback-riding accident in 1995. The accident left him paralyzed from the neck down.

Walters was the first to interview Reeve after his paralysis. He was confined to a wheelchair, which he operated by blowing puffs of air into a tube. (A respirator was connected to the back of the chair.) With probing but sensitive questions, Walters provided viewers a look inside Reeve’s life as a quadriplegic.

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“The View”

While doing 20/20 and frequent specials, Walters conceived, produced, and cohosted ABC’s daytime talk show The View, beginning in 1997. Her goal was to create a show featuring different women of different backgrounds, different generations, and different perspectives. She explained in a voiceover:

“I’ve always wanted to do a show with women of different generations, backgrounds, and views: a working mother (broadcast journalist Meredith Vieira); a professional in her 30s (lawyer Star Jones); a young woman just starting out (television host Debbie Matenopoulos); and then somebody who’s done almost everything and will say almost anything (comedian Joy Behar).”

 

The original co-hosts of “The View”. Photo from ABC News.
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The show was an immediate hit. It continues to this day, despite a virtual revolving door of co-hosts over the years. Women who have served as hosts on the show include Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg, actress and comedienne Rosie O’Donnell, Republican commentator Meghan McCain, actress Rosie Perez, journalist Lisa Ling, lawyer Sunny Hostin, and former Republican staffer (and current MSNBC host) Nicole Wallace.

This story will be updated.

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