Friends, family and colleagues gathered to celebrate the life and career of Don Hewitt Oct. 19 at Lincoln Center's Rose Hall. The creator and executive producer of 60 Minutes died Aug. 19 of pancreatic cancer. He was 86.
"Don Hewitt was an exceptional man," said Jeff Fager, who took over as executive producer of 60 Minutes after Hewitt reluctantly retired in 2004.
"He believed in great journalism. He detested fluff," Fager added. "Don was direct. His candor was refreshing. In a world filled with ambiguity; Don told it like it is."
Hewitt's journalism career began in 1942 when he landed a job as a copy boy at the New York Herald Tribune. He joined CBS News in 1948 as a director of the first television newscast with Douglas Edwards. He also directed See It Now with Edward R. Murrow. And he was the executive producer of the first half-hour network newscast when the CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite went from 15 minutes to a half-hour format in 1963.
Hewitt pioneered the use of cue cards for anchors. He was the first to use "supers"-superimposing type on the bottom of the television screen. Hewitt produced and directed the pool coverage for the first televised presidential debates in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. As Joan Ganz Cooney, producer and a co-founder of Sesame Street, put it: "He famously told Mr. Nixon to put on some makeup to look more normal."
But his most enduring achievement remains 60 Minutes. "It is impossible to overstate the significance" of 60 Minutes, said Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp. At CBS, he continued, "There was no better example of what we stood for and what we wanted to stand for. 60 Minutes made us the Tiffany Network."
60 Minutes finished last season at No. 10 on television's top 10 list. And last month's 42nd season opener was its best premiere in four years, attracting nearly 15 million viewers.
Hewitt was the consummate showman, perpetually brimming with ideas, which he apparently shared with anyone within earshot. Moonves recalled that when he arrived at CBS in 1995, he "was honored to be on the Don Hewitt pitch list."
"Kid, I've got a great idea for ya," was Hewitt's refrain for the network's new head of entertainment. And Moonves would hear from Hewitt as often as three times a week. "Then I realized that the security guard and the woman who cleaned the offices at night were also on the Don Hewitt pitch list. God, he was relentless."
Ganz Cooney added that Bill Paley, the legendary founder of CBS, would hide behind his couch when he heard Hewitt storming the halls of CBS.
The memorial included multiple video tributes, including one from Andy Rooney, who was in attendance along with 60 Minutes correspondent emeritus Mike Wallace, 91.
Morley Safer, who worked with Hewitt for more that 40 years, recalled that Hewitt had only one muse: "the seat of his pants." Hewitt liked his segments tight and clear, and they had better pack a punch, explained Safer.
"Don liked to boast that he could cut the Lord's Prayer in half and make it better," said Safer. "He had the attention span of a fruit fly on acid."
Hewitt had no patience for bad storytelling. If you showed him a segment he didn't like, he would simply get out of his chair and leave the room. "He had the itchiest ass in history," Safer added.
"He was a fountain of ideas and torrent of hard work," said Alan Alda, who got to know Hewitt during summers in Bridgehampton, N.Y. Retirement was tough on Hewitt, Alda recalled, but it did not stanch the flow of ideas.
"His desk was his head and he never left it," Alda said. "He loved people. He loved being connected to people. He connected to people through stories. He was an unassuming person who accomplished extraordinary things. He never lost touch with humanity, ours or his own."