In honor of Walters’s retirement from television, let’s take a look at how she got to the top.
In 2011 Oprah Winfrey made us do the ugly cry when she bid adieu to broadcast network television. Despite her new chapter as CEO of OWN network in the cable realm, her “retirement” was still a semi-traumatizing moment for talk show viewers everywhere. And now, today, we’re faced with saying goodbye to the one-and-only Barbara Walters.
The span and substance of the 84-year-old TV fixture’s career is beyond impressive. She’s interviewed every sitting president since Richard Nixon, jaunted around the Bay of Pigs with Fidel Castro as her tour guide, and sat down to talk with everyone from murderers to sex scandal survivors to teary-eyed movie stars. (And she survived working with Star Jones—that alone would be considered a gold-star accomplishment!)
In honor of Walters’s retirement from television, let’s take a look at how she got to the top:
1961: ‘Today’ show
Walters joined the Today show as a writer for short segments and transitioned to writing for the show’s “Today Girl” (the Mad Men-esque moniker then given to women on the program). Walters’s career at Today may not have started with fanfare, but there was plenty of sexism.
1964: Becomes an on-air correspondent for Today
Walters had covered a few stories on air for Today, but she only became a regular after actress Maureen O’Sullivan flopped as the “Today Girl.” With no money left to hire a big name, the show turned to Walters. She was thrilled, if taken aback: “I wasn’t beautiful like many of the women on the show before me, and I had trouble pronouncing my r’s.”
It wasn’t always glamorous work—one of her duties was to hand slavering dogs their Alpo for the show’s live commercials—but she won audiences over. And, as she noted in her memoir, the Alpo dogs really liked her, too.
1971: Starts chasing interviews
When a new Today host, Frank McGee, decided he didn’t want to share interviews with Walters, she was ordered to stay quiet in front of guests until McGee had asked three questions. Walters realized that if she set up her own interviews outside the studio, she could ask all the questions she wanted.
A determined Walters wrote letters, made calls, and did whatever she could to get people to talk to her. TV’s most famous interviewer was born!
1974: Becomes co-host
In a case of better late than never, Walters officially became a co-host on Today after a decade of actually handling the role. The show’s (albeit belated) acknowledgement of its female anchors lived on after her; as she noted in a 2013 interview, “After me, every woman was a co-host. I feel good about that.”
1976: $1 million payday
Given Walters’s success on Today and other programs, ABC came courting with a huge payday: $500,000 to co-host the evening news, and $500,000 to create four Barbara Walters Specials each year. She accepted the deal, thus becoming the first woman to anchor a network’s nightly news broadcast. (The fact that she no longer had to get up at 4:30 a.m. for Today was another nice bonus.)
1976: First Barbara Walters Special
On December 14, 1976, Walters’s first Special featured president-elect Jimmy Carter and his wife, as well as Barbra Streisand. And, in a lesson on the inescapable need to fill airtime on TV, the program included a tour of Walters’s apartment (no suitable guest had been found for the third segment).
The look at her abode was odd, but there were some benefits: It helped inspire another one of Gilda Radner’s popular “Baba Wawa” sketches on Saturday Night Live.
“[Success] can make you a prima donna, or it can smooth the edges, take away the insecurities, let the nice things come out.” — Barbara Walters
1977: Interviews Castro
In May, Walters’s powers of persuasion resulted in a trip to Cuba for an in-depth interview with Fidel Castro. During the visit, she and her crew joined the dictator for a boat ride on the Bay of Pigs; Castro informed them that they were the first Americans to be there since the failed 1961 invasion.
Reminiscing about her time with Castro to People magazine, Walters stated, “I spent 10 days with him, traveled through the mountains and held his gun in my lap.” Sounds like fun!
1977: Landmark joint interview
Castro wasn’t the only notable Walters interview in 1977. She also convinced former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin to take part in a joint interview, the first between the heads of state of the two countries.
When Walter Cronkite heard about her scoop, he asked the two leaders to talk to him as well. Cronkite’s interview was rushed onto the air so quickly that the newsman can be heard worrying at the end: “Did Barbara get anything I didn’t get?”
1978: Leaves the nightly news
Walters traveled for interviews, but she still had to spend time at ABC’s news desk. There, she earned every penny of her hefty salary by working alongside co-anchor Harry Reasoner, who didn’t bother to hide his contempt for her during their broadcasts.
By 1978, the network gave up on the pair and revamped the program. But Reasoner’s unreasonable behavior had earned Walters support from a number of people. John Wayne sent a telegram that said: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” Good advice for any job.
1981: The tree question
Walters remained at ABC, working on the newsmagazine 20/20 and creating her popular Specials. She landed another impressive interview when actress Katharine Hepburn agreed to talk with her. But when the star stated during their conversation that she felt like a tree, Walters followed up with: “What kind of a tree are you?”
The moment’s awkwardness would haunt the broadcast star for years. (As for Hepburn, she took the query in stride and answered that she’d like to be an oak. Even with her more abstract questions, Walters—thankfully, for her sake—got answers.)
1999: Interviews Monica Lewinsky
Walters’s interview-landing prowess came through once more when she nabbed Monica Lewinsky’s first on-camera confessional. During their talk, Walters asked what many Americans had been thinking: “You showed the president your thong underwear. Where did you get the nerve?”
2007: The Earth: Round or flat?
In 1997, she moved back to daytime TV to create The View, an all-female talk show that caught on with audiences. Each woman brought a different viewpoint to the show, but even Walters was surprised when new host Sherri Shepherd stated on air that she didn’t know if the world was flat or round.
At the end of the broadcast, Walters informed her co-host, “Sherri, dear, the earth is round.”
2014: Farewell, Barbara
With a year to prepare—Walters announced her plans to retire in 2013—the country is ready to bid a fond farewell to the anchor. She has been lauded by her colleagues and even found time to stop by Saturday Night Live (though she initially hated “Baba Wawa,” she came to accept the impression). Mayor Bill de Blasio has decreed that her last regular day on TV, May 16th, will be “Barbara Walters Day” in New York City.
Walters wanted “to leave while people will still say, ‘She’ll be missed.’ Not ‘Is she still here?’” It appears her wish came true.