“We were all influenced by Barbara Walters,” ABC News’ David Muir said in a tribute Friday, remembering Walters as an “extraordinary human being, journalist, pioneer, legend.”
“She broke barriers behind the scenes and she broke news on-camera. She got people to say things they never would’ve said to another journalist.”
The daughter of a nightclub owner, Walters got into television to support the family after he went broke. She went on to a career asking questions about the public and private lives of the powerful, rich, famous and infamous. And no other woman in television journalism had a longer career, with more hits and flops, scoops and controversies, praise and ridicule.
She made her on-air debut in 1956, when as a writer for CBS’ “The Morning Show,” she and four other young women modeled modest one-piece bathing suits. In 1961, she became NBC’s “Today Girl,” and in 1974, the first female co-host of “Today.” In 1976, she was disastrously teamed with Harry Reasoner, as co-anchors of ABC’s “Evening News.” Reasoner didn’t think much of her, and he didn’t hide it.
But she “survived,” as she put it, and enjoyed a long career at ABC interviewing celebrities and politicians, including Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin (together, for the first time, in 1977). She had a successful run on newsmagazine “20/20” and in 1997, launched “The View,” ABC’s daily chatfest aimed at women.
Over the years, she interviewed Richard Nixon and his wife, Pat, John Wayne, the Shah of Iran, Fidel Castro (an hourlong prime-time exclusive that was broadcast worldwide), Barbra Streisand and, perhaps most famously, presidential intern Monica Lewinsky (who drew a record news-broadcast audience of 48.5 million viewers).
Her “Barbara Walters Specials” for years were among the top-rated broadcasts, and included a Who’s Who of entertainers such as Sir Laurence Olivier, Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, Tom Cruise, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Her “Most Fascinating People” special broadcasts, launched in 1993, offered a year-end review of prominent newsmakers of the year.
Her high profile drew a measure of mockery. Comic Gilda Radner entered American folklore by exaggerating Walters’ trademark speech impediment, a slight lisp, as Baba Wawa in the early days of “Saturday Night Live.” Later, Cheri Oteri impersonated the journalist in sketches about “The View” and “20/20.” Oteritickled CNN New Year’s Eve hosts Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen when she revived the impression to ring in 2020.
Walters took on a new mindset after having open-heart surgery to replace her aortic valve in 2010.
“The surgery had to have had some meaning for me,” she wrote in an essay for Vanity Fair. “I decided that with my new heart it was time for a new attitude, time to do things I had wanted to do for years and not continue doing things I had no serious interest in. No more big dinners just to prove I was invited. No more opera. Ditto for Shakespeare. No more splashy charity events. Send a check instead. The new and happier me.”
Word surfaced in 2013 that Walters planned to retire the following year from her hosting duties at ABC’s “The View” and her prime time specials. She announced in April 2014 that she would depart the talk show the next month, explaining on the program: “It feels right for me. I love this show. I love what we’ve done. It will continue without me. But I also know that it’s time. I don’t want people to say, ‘Is she still here?'”
Shortly before her departure, she told USA TODAY the decision was not forced upon her. “Nobody was pushing me, (and) there was not somebody newer, younger, funnier,” she said. “At some point, I just thought it was time. If I stayed yet another year, I’m not sure what that would have given me. It’s been 18 years.”
Although she appeared on “The View” after her retirement, Walters mostly kept out of the public eye.
On New Year’s 2020, Walters once again became top of mind, thanks to her legendary introductory line: “This is 20/20.” “Good Morning America” celebrated Walters and her iconic catchphrase by having a few celebrities try their hand at the famous line. A video kicked off with old footage of Walters on the news show saying “This is 20/20,” acknowledging that “no one says it like Barbara” before cutting to ABC stars’ take on the catchphrase.