Twenty years ago tonight, America tuned in to see Barbra Streisand on “60 Minutes.” The date was actually November 24, 1991… It should have been a career highpoint, something special, an examination of one of America’s greatest entertainers at the peak of her prowess.
Barbra was on the brink of the release of her second directorial effort, “The Prince of Tides,” when she decided to sit down for an in-depth interview with Mike Wallace, the toughest “60 Minutes” reporter of all. That’s right, it was Mike Wallace, the no-nonsense CBS newsman who showed no mercy when taking on a subject. But Barbra — and her personal manager, Marty Erlichman — thought Mike would be tough, but fair, to Barbra.
You see, Streisand and Wallace weren’t strangers. They were old acquaintances. They first met on June 22,1961, when Barbra — then just a Greenwich Village singer with aspirations to become an actress — appeared on a local New York talk show called “P.M. East.” It was hosted by an almost equally unknown television personality named Mike Wallace. If Barbra Streisand was a nobody, an aspiring actress trying to make her name in show business, Mike was only a little further along in his rise to fame.
Between the two of them, there should have been some affinity. Wallace had been kicking around since 1939 when he began in radio right out of college, hosting game shows and announcing for programs like “The Green Hornet” and “Sky King.”
But Wallace and Streisand, despite the many times she appeared on “P.M. East,” had never really clicked. He appreciated her idiosyncratic appearances because she helped draw viewers. He said later on, “What I found so striking about Streisand in those days (aside from her singing) was her attitude of supreme self-assurance. I had to keep reminding myself that she was still a kid, a teenager…”
Still, he found off-putting at times. She was in-your-face before that term was even coined. Appearing on the talk show, she talked a lot. She had strong opinions and shared them. She was audacious and fascinating. If the point of her being there was to be engaging and to entertain, she succeeded. Perhaps what vexed Wallace was the fact that she was both real and fantastic at the same time. She’d confess to being a kid from Brooklyn, and yet at the same time claimed that her ambition was to be a director… of operas!
Wallace can be heard on the ancient audio tapes sounding exhausted by her, to the put of saying, essentially, “Shut up and sing.” And because of that glorious voice, he kept bringing her back. Like the rest of the world, the Streisand instrument and the way she use it mesmerized him.
He said, “When she began to sing, the studio became hushed. …Her lithe body and extremely expressive hands and arms added to the versatility of her voice that soared effortlessly from a deep-throated timbre to the highest registers.”
When you hear that acknowledgement by Wallace — which he said in 1962 — shows you how impressed he was. By the time Wallace sat with Streisand in 1991 on “60 Minutes,” she’d traveled so far — and so had he — but for Mike, the feeling nostalgic. Barbra, on the other hand, was. She went with him and the cameras to her first New York apartment to go down memory lane. She walked the streets of the city and had a slice of pizza with Mike. She was a good sport. Mike, on the other hand, had an agenda.
Is it likely that Mike Wallace resented Barbra Streisand’s success? Could he have wondered how she managed to achieve far more than just become a singing star…which might have been the extent of his prediction for Brooklyn Barbra.
Who knows… The fact is that he didn’t care for her desire to control the interview in 1991. That was his take on her interest in putting forth a positive image during the show. She wanted to promote “The Prince of Tides,” as much as she wanted to allow Mike to put her psyche on display. So while her efforts were sincere, albeit she did want control, he was duplicitous. That was evident in two ways: first, he showed how Barbra was playing director during the set up for the filming. She asked for the lights to be changed and questioned the camera angle. Normally, those moments — which happen all the time before shooting — are not shown as part of the segment. To make Barbra seem over-involved with her looks, Mike included it. Considering that she was being filmed for 20 million viewers, why wouldn’t Barbra have cared about how she was photographed? Wouldn’t any celebrity?
But more damaging was the second item on Mike Wallace’s agenda. He interviewed Barbra’s mother, Diana Kind, questioning her about her daughter and getting her to say that Barbra had no time to be close to her. Mrs. Kind’s segment of the entire “60 Minutes” piece was about a minute. We don’t know what else she said because it was never included in the broadcast. Just the hurtful words, the painful jab that when played to Barbra without warning, made her cry.
Mike Wallace had successfully pierced her heart and made Barbra Streisand break down in tears and stop the filming. It had been a dirty trick and, ultimately, backfired on Wallace. He was perceived as a nasty bully and Barbra came off as the unwitting victim. No less that fellow “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl called Wallace on the carpet for the 1991 interview, telling Wallace, “That was mean.”
Years later, Wallace agreed. “It was mean. Yes it was [rough].” He still sought to justify his actions, however, adding, “But [Streisand] needed to have control.” When People Magazine also called him on his less-than-cavalier treatment of Barbra, Wallace conceded that he’d crossed the line. “I overdid it. The show was about revealing the truth, but she wasn’t a bad guy.” When all was said and done, “a repentant Wallace made a sincere on-camera apology to Streisand.” Better late than never.