Also Credited As:Barbara Jill Walters
|Barbara Jill Walters on September 25, 1929 in Boston, Massachusetts, USA|
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Barbara Walters was born on Sept. 25, 1929 (sources vary on birth date, with some stating 1931) in Boston, MA and because of her father Lou's career as a nightclub impresario, she was raised in Boston, New York and Miami. Lou Walters went from producing the famed Ziegfeld Follies stage show in New York City to launching a chain of popular nightclubs called The Latin Quarter, which were known for lavish musical productions and top talent. Her father was so well-known in the entertainment industry that his family, including his youngest daughter, Barbara, were a common sight hobnobbing with the glamorous stars and clientele of The Latin Quarter - an unusual situation that Walters would later credit with her unfazed ease around "famous people." Walters also claimed that her close relationship with her developmentally disabled older sister strongly impacted her future, giving her a profound capacity for empathy and compassion.
After attending private schools in New York City, Walters graduated from Miami Beach High School in 1947 and promptly returned to New York to attend Sarah Lawrence College. By the time she graduated in 1951 with an English degree, her father's entertainment empire had collapsed and Walter's felt she needed to step up and financially support her family. She landed entry-level jobs in advertising and public relations and segued into production as a news writer for the local CBS affiliate. WNBC hired her as a writer and researcher, and in a short period of time, she was their youngest producer. In 1961, the ambitious new face was snapped up by "The Today Show," where she wrote and researched for the daily morning program for less than a year before being promoted to an on-air correspondent and segment producer. As the "Today Girl," Walters' range was limited to light lifestyle pieces and human interest reporting on such things as the life of a nun. She was not allowed to dip into the "hard news" territory of "Today" host Frank McGee, even as a researcher, and if a politician or big newsmaker joined the show in the studio, Walters was only allowed to join the interview after McGee had the first opportunity to address them.
Walters survived those early years at NBC working tirelessly, eventually circumnavigating the sexist conventions by going after hard news guests on her own. By producing her own stories, she was able to eliminate the requirement that McGee helm the interviews. Naturally, the female producer's legitimate pursuit of intelligent news coverage was perceived as pushiness, but NBC could not deny that Walters was sharp, intelligent, and had a unique interview style and an appealing approach to her subjects. By 1972, Walters declared victory over the sexist system when, in addition to her "Today Show" duties, she was named as an NBC news correspondent. She was entrusted to cover President Nixon's historic visit to China and cemented her trustworthy and professional image with interviews with Henry Kissinger, Anwar Sadat and other significant world leaders. Her stock continued to rise when she launched "Not Just for Women Only" (NBC, 1968-1976), an afternoon panel discussion show that was one of the first to discuss personal, emotional life issues and incorporate audience participation. She earned an Emmy nomination for her hosting role in 1974; the same year she was officially designated as co-anchor of "The Today Show" upon the death of McGee and his replacement with Jim Hartz.
The following year, Walters received an Emmy Award for Best Host or Hostess in a Talk, Service or Variety Show for her work on "Today," and was named Broadcaster of the Year by the International TV and Radio Society. Despite the once unthinkable career advancements she had made, 1976 felt like 1961 all over again when Walters signed a deal with ABC to co-anchor "World News Tonight" (ABC, 1978- ) and received an icy reception from its existing anchor, Harry Reasoner. His resentment at working alongside Walters - a woman from a new generation of journalists who had come up through television instead of through print - was palpable on-air. Off-air, he refused to speak to his partner. Meanwhile, critics lamented the decline of hard-hitting news with unfair accusations that Walters delivered female-friendly "infotainment." The fact that Walters - the first woman ever offered a co-anchor slot on a network evening news program - was wooed with a highly publicized $1 million dollar salary (for five years, including half a dozen primetime news specials) only fueled negative feedback. But Walters handled the assignment competently, conducting a live interview with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat on her first broadcast and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir on the second.
Walters stuck with the unpleasant work atmosphere for two years. Despondent, she thought her career was over, while off-screen, her 13-year marriage to theatrical producer Lee Guber was also coming to an end. But ABC News president Roone Arledge was not prepared to write off his investment so soon. He gave Walters an opportunity to utilize her particular talent for probing interviews with a series of "Barbara Walter's Specials" which would cover a wide range of subjects - from then sitting President Jimmy Carter and wife Roslyn to pop singer Barbra Streisand. The show was an instant hit with audiences. In 1976, Walters was tapped to moderate a televised debate between presidential hopefuls Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, and the following year, she arranged a joint interview with estranged leaders Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. In 1978, Reasoner left the nighttime news broadcast to go to CBS. ABC was disappointed with its news ratings so Walters was yanked from the anchor desk and reassigned as a news correspondent. Audiences definitely wanted more Barbara Walters, however, and her network presence was expanded to include a correspondent role on the then monthly primetime news magazine, "20/20." She continued to produce "Barbara Walters Specials" and news features for the network, earning another Emmy Award for her live coverage of the 1980 presidential election night.
In 1983, "The Barbara Walters Special" earned an Emmy award for Outstanding Informational Series, and it would go on to land yearly nominations for a full decade. It had also earned a revered place in television for consistently interesting coverage of both news and entertainment figures, with millions of viewers flocking to see what kind of left-field questions Walters would use to expose the private personalities of public figures. Ever aware of lingering chauvinism in the business, Walters was continually on the defense, observing, "If '60 Minutes' does Katharine Hepburn, isn't it wonderful? But if I do it, how dare a newsperson also do movie stars?" Walters, named in 1982 and 1984 Gallup polls as one of the most respected women in America, struck a medium ground between news and human interest fare in 1984 when "20/20" went weekly and Walters was offered the position of co-host alongside Hugh Downs. With her track record of probing controversial government leaders from Fidel Castro to Yasir Arafat on very pointed issues, she and the reassuring Downs made for sincere human bookends to the latest scoops, scams and scandals.
Walters maintained her solid footing as television's most renowned interviewer over the next dozen years, though some detractors accused her of pandering for ratings by intentionally trying to make celebs cry and criminals confess or for asking "softball" questions of hard newsmakers. No matter. It was undeniable that she made a significant cultural contribution to the ages with her four decades of profiles of notorious faces, even getting lampooned by Gilda Radner on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) and by countless comics thereafter - usually with an amped speech impediment in which her "r's" were blatantly absent. Her Oscar night specials, featuring intimate visits with the year's top nominees, were just as anticipated as the awards ceremony itself. In 1993, she added another top-rated special to her annual line-up - an end of the year review of that year's "Ten Most Fascinating People." And a review of Walters interview roster reads like a survey of late 20th century history: Richard Nixon, Fidel Castro, John Lennon assassin Mark David Chapman, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, O.J. Simpson defense attorney Robert Shapiro, curious newlyweds Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley, scandalized White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and controversial Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, among many others.
In 1997, Walters created, executive-produced and served as co-host of "The View," a daytime chat show for ABC cannily designed specifically to appeal to a multi-generational female demographic with its diverse array of hosts. Walters provided gravitas, journalistic integrity and spoke to the older generation; comedian Joy Behar added zingers and spoke to the graying Baby Boomers; attorney Star Jones provided perspectives for career-minded women and African-Americans; and Debbie Matenopoulos and her successors Lisa Ling and Elisabeth Hasselbeck gave voice to a young generation. Respected journalist Meredith Vieira spoke for professional middle-aged women with families and kept the show moving at a brisk pace as moderator. The show was a surprise hit and revealed an even more human and personable side to the anchorwoman, though some of her fans were disappointed that she would "stoop" to such morning fluff. No one could claim the show was not riveting, however, as her 2006 announcement that Rosie O'Donnell would replace Vieira landed the show on the front pages numerous times, with O'Donnell stirring the pot enough with right-wing Republicans, Donald Trump and "Live!" co-host Kelly Ripa, that Walters often spoke up in her defense. As the resident den mother of an increasingly volatile panel, it fell to Walters to smooth the ruffled feathers of the right-wing Hasselbeck and the left-wing O'Donnell as they often came to verbal blows throughout O'Donnell's one-year tenure on the show.
Outside of "The View," Walters received a Lifetime Achievement honor from the Daytime Emmys in 2000, but proved she was not finished achieving when, the following year, she was a crucial part of ABC's coverage of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Walters also continued making regular appearances on "20/20," but retired from her desk duties in 2004 to much fanfare. In 2008, she released the memoir Audition, a warm and often surprising look into the woman behind the interviews that included revelations about the difficulties she had raising her daughter and her tireless efforts to break through in a male-dominated business. As "The View" marched on as a ratings favorite, the show frequently became the topic of news itself. One such instance took place in 2010, when a heated discussion about Muslim extremists with conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly, escalated to the point that hosts Goldberg and Behar stormed off the set. As always, Walters acted as mediator, calling for calm and implicitly chastising her co-hosts for losing their composure. At about this time, speculation about Walters' impending retirement began to circulate once again. Furthering the conjecture was the host's heart surgery to repair an aortic valve in the spring of 2010. Although she returned to her talk show duties not long after the successful operation, an off-hand comment made to President Barack Obama during a 2011 interview, in which she stated that she had confided to the President that she needed this last piece with him, "because I'm retiring next year," once again fueled the rumors.