On this day in 2014, broadcast journalist and TV personality Barbara Walters retires from ABC News and as co-host of the daytime program “The View.” In a landmark career that spanned some 50 years on air, the 84-year-old Walters blazed a trail for women in TV news. On Walter’s May 16th “View” sendoff, Oprah Winfrey, Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric were among the more than two dozen female broadcasters who appeared on the show to pay tribute to the legendary newswoman.
Born in Boston on September 25, 1929, Walters, whose father was a night club owner, grew up in Massachusetts, New York City and Miami. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, Walters worked as a TV writer and producer in New York before joining NBC’s “The Today Show” in 1961 as a writer and, eventually, on-air reporter. In 1974, she was named an official co-host of the program, the first woman to hold the job. Two years later, Walters became the first woman to co-anchor a nightly network newscast, earning a record $1 million a year. However, after experiencing tension with her “ABC Evening News” co-host, Harry Reasoner, and low ratings, Walters left the program in 1978. From 1984 to 2004, she was a co-host and producer of the TV newsmagazine “20/20.” Additionally, in 1997, she created “The View,” co-hosting the program from its inception until her retirement.
Best known for her interviews, over the decades Walters went one-on-one with American presidents (she interrogated every commander in chief from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama), world leaders, movie stars, convicted killers and scores of other newsmakers. In 1977, she convinced Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to submit to their first joint interview, and that same year she also traveled to Cuba for a headline-making sit down with dictator Fidel Castro. In 2001, she interviewed President Vladimir Putin of Russia and asked whether he’d ever ordered anyone killed (he said “nyet”). She also conducted interviews with such notorious figures as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Moammar Qadaffi and Syria’s Bashir al Assad. In 1999, Monica Lewinsky, whose affair with President Bill Clinton led to his impeachment, gave her first TV interview to Walters; a record-breaking 74 million viewers tuned in, making it the highest-rated news program ever broadcast by a single network.
Walters, who interviewed almost every major Hollywood celebrity, also earned a reputation for skillfully asking probing questions that made a number of her famous subjects tear up. However, one question Walters had a tough time living down occurred during a 1981 on-air conversation with Katharine Hepburn. After the actress compared herself to a tree, Walters said, “What kind of tree are you, if you think you’re a tree?”
On May 13, 2013, Walters announced that after more than half a century in TV, she would retire the following year. Shortly before the acclaimed journalist made her official farewell on “The View” in May 2014, her longtime employer, ABC, honored her by naming its news headquarters in New York City the Barbara Walters Building.