By Bill Trott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Barbara Walters, one of the most visible women on U.S. television as the first female anchor on an American network evening news broadcast and one of TV’s most prominent interviewers, died on Friday at age 93, her longtime ABC News home said.
Walters, who created the popular ABC women’s talk show “The View” in 1997, died at her home in New York, Robert Iger, chief executive of ABC’s corporate parent, The Walt Disney Co. DIS.N, said in a statement. The circumstances of her death were not given.
“Barbara was a true legend, a pioneer not just for women in journalism but for journalism itself,” Iger wrote.
In a broadcast career spanning five decades, Walters interviewed an array of world leaders, including Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, Russian presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, and every U.S. president and first lady since Richard and Pat Nixon.
“I never thought I’d have this kind of a life,” Walters said in a 2004 Chicago Tribune interview. “I’ve met everyone in the world. I’ve probably met more people, more heads of state, more important people, even almost than any president, because they’ve only had eight years.”
Walters’ critics said she too often asked softball questions and she was long skewered for a 1981 interview in which she asked Hollywood actress Katharine Hepburn what kind of tree she would like to be.
Walters pointed out that she only asked because Hepburn had first compared herself to a tree.
She knew how to ask tough questions, too.
“I asked Yeltsin if he drank too much, and I asked Putin if he killed anybody,” Walters told the New York Times in 2013. Both answered no.
Celebrity interviews also were an important part of Walters’ repertoire, and for 29 years she hosted a pre-Oscars interview program featuring Academy Award nominees. She also had an annual “most fascinating people” show but dropped it when she decided she was weary of celebrity interviews.
Walters reached the top of her field despite difficulty pronouncing R’s – a trait that made her the target of a biting “Bawa WaWa” impersonation by Gilda Radner on the “Saturday Night Live” sketch comedy show in the 1970s. Walters said the spoof bothered her, until her daughter told her to lighten up.
Walters was born in Boston. Her father, Lou Walters, worked in show business as a nightclub owner and booking agent, and was credited with discovering such talent as comedian Fred Allen and actor Jack Haley, who would go on to play the Tin Man in the motion picture classic “The Wizard of Oz.”
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, she worked in public relations before joining NBC’s “Today” show as a writer and segment producer in 1961. She began getting air time with feature stories – such as a report on her one-day stint as a Playboy bunny – and became a regular on the program.
It was then that she began encountering resistance. “Today” show host Frank McGee resented her presence and tried to limit her role on the show.
After 13 years on “Today,” Walters was given an unprecedented $1 million annual salary to move to rival network ABC in 1976 and make history as the first woman co-anchor on a U.S. evening newscast. Her unwilling partner, Harry Reasoner, made his disdain for Walters obvious even when they were on the air.
“These two men were really quite brutal to me and it was not pleasant,” Walters told the San Francisco Examiner. “For a long time, I couldn’t talk about that time without tears in my eyes. It was so awful to walk into that studio every day where no one would talk to me.”
After her unhappy run on the “ABC Evening News” ended in 1978, Walters established herself on the network’s prime-time news magazine show “20/20” and stayed with the program for 25 years. Being interviewed by Walters on “20/20” or on her numerous specials became a distinction – and guaranteed exposure – for her subjects.
In 1977, she scored a joint interview with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin before they made peace.
Walters became so prominent that her star quality sometimes overshadowed the people she was questioning. The New York Times called her “arguably America’s best-known television personality” but also observed that “what we remember most about a Barbara Walters interview is Barbara Walters.”
Critics sometimes found her cloying, but she also could be blunt, such as in asking Martha Stewart, the lifestyle guru who went to prison in an insider-stock-trading case, “Martha, why do so many people hate you?”
In 1997, Walters launched “The View” on ABC, a popular roundtable discussion show for women that was sometimes riven by disputes with her co-hosts Star Jones and Rosie O’Donnell. She made her final appearance as co-host of the show in 2014 but remained an executive producer of the program and continued to do occasional interviews and specials for ABC News.
Walters’ three marriages – to businessman Robert Katz, theatrical producer Lee Guber and television executive Merv Adelson – ended in divorce. She also had high-profile boyfriends such as Alan Greenspan, former head of the Federal Reserve, and John Warner, who would later become a senator from Virginia.
Her love life made headlines in 2008 when her autobiography, “Audition: A Memoir,” revealed an affair with then-married Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, the first black senator since post-Civil War Reconstruction.
Walters underwent heart surgery in 2010, which provided material for an ABC special in which she and former President Bill Clinton, actor Robin Williams and other high-profile heart surgery patients discussed their conditions.
She earned 12 Emmy awards, 11 of those while at ABC News, the network said.