NEW YORK -- Fair warning: In the next few weeks you may sense tremors rippling from Manhattan's West 57th Street. A seismic shift is due at "60 Minutes" headquarters as Don Hewitt, who created that pioneering newsmagazine 36 years ago and has run it since, steps aside. "I thought he'd never leave," jokes Mike Wallace, a "60 Minutes" correspondent since CBS brought the show to the air Sept. 24, 1968.
Hewitt isn't exiting the premises. But at 81 he has consented, however reluctantly, to leave the job he tailored for himself.
After passing the baton to current "60 Minutes II" executive producer Jeff Fager, Hewitt will assume a newly fashioned position whose duties, if any, are yet to be determined. "I'm gonna be downstairs: executive producer of CBS News," says Hewitt, holding forth in his ninth-floor corner office -- a gallery of awards, curios, and photos of him with a half-century's worth of giants.
Just what does "executive producer of CBS News" mean? Maybe whatever Hewitt makes of it: Nothing says he won't get another brainstorm and run with it for the next 36 years.
In the meantime, he says, the CBS bosses "are gonna give me a big party. They're gonna do an hour broadcast on me," which airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. (locally, it's on Channel 4). "All of which I would've traded to just stay here. They're making a change in a broadcast that doesn't need any change.
"But I'm not gonna argue with 'em," he says, his grin radiating scrappiness, charm, and wonderment at being such a lucky guy.
"I'm gonna take all this down there," he says and gestures toward the eighth floor, "and sit with my souvenirs and contemplate maybe the best life that any guy who ever chose journalism as a profession ever led."
Some life! A kid from New Rochelle, N.Y., Hewitt busted into CBS News in 1948 -- when radio still reigned -- and jumped right into inventing TV journalism. He is credited with using TV's first cue cards, and with the idea of superimposing titles over TV images (he used a menu board with rearrangable letters he got from a nearby diner). Along with reminiscences by his "60 Minutes" correspondents (Wallace will be joined by Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, Steve Kroft, and Lesley Stahl) and a tribute by Andy Rooney, "Tell Me a Story: The Man Who Made `60 Minutes' " includes archival glimpses of Hewitt through the ages. Hewitt was 45, a bored CBS News documentary producer, when he had the idea for "60 Minutes," which he saw as a TV version of Life magazine's weekly words-and-photos recipe.
Hewitt fused crackerjack storytelling with journalistic rigor to create a lasting (eventually overcrowded) genre, the TV newsmagazine. And when "60 Minutes" caught fire in the ratings, he realized he had done something else: Without meaning to, he had transformed TV news from a loss leader into a cash cow. Once it settled into its 7 p.m. Sunday slot, in 1975, "60 Minutes" became a Top 20 prime-time series; a year later, it cracked the Top 10 and stayed there for the next 13 seasons. Five times it ended up No. 1. (It currently ranks a robust 17th.) " `60 Minutes' has been the happiest shop imaginable," says Wallace, 86, who only recently reduced his workload, "because everybody was caught up in something they believed in. And it was Hewitt, with his enthusiasm and hard work and knowledge of how to put a piece together, who made it work."