How Barbara Walters Woke up Today: ‘That’s my legacy. I’m very proud of it.’

By Gail Shister Comment

Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs pose in the "Today" photo booth during the show's 60th Anniversary broadcast this morning.

Barbara Walters’ retirement timetable is none of our business.

“I know when I’m going to do it, and I’m fine about it,” says ABC’s Walters, 82. “When I leave, I’m not going to go do something else or go tackle something else. I have a wonderful, full private life. I will be just fine.”

Got that?

“The fact is, I’m still working, I feel great and I’m still doing very important stories,” she adds. “It’s been one of my busiest years. I’m on ‘The View’ three times a week, I went to Syria, I interviewed the Obamas before Christmas.”

The first female co-host of ‘Today,’ Walters returns to her former digs this morning as part of the show’s 60th anniversary celebration. She’ll be joined by fellow alums Katie Couric, Bryant Gumbel, Tom Brokaw, Jane Pauley and Hugh Downs, among others.

Breaking into the boys club of ‘Today’ hosts was no easy task for Walters in 1974. She had to do it over Frank McGee’s dead body. Literally.

The backstory: McGee had refused to do joint news interviews with Walters, who had sweated her way up from ‘Today Girl’ to reporter. For the veteran newsman, working with a woman “was a humiliation,” according to Walters, and ‘Today’ represented “a demotion.”

In the mindset of that era, TV-women “were supposed to do fashion shows and celebrities,” explains Walters. “When NBC hired me [as a writer-researcher in 1961], I wasn’t an actor or a model and I didn’t sing. It was a huge breakthrough just to put me on.”

In what she describes as uncharacteristic behavior for her at the time, Walters took the issue all the way up to then-NBC News president Julian Goodman. “It was one of the few times I stood up for myself,” she says. “My way had always been just to do the work.”

A compromise was hammered out – Walters could ask a question or two, but only after McGee had asked the first three.

When McGee died in 1974 at age 52, “NBC said it was looking for another host,” Walters recalls. “I said, ‘No, co-host.’ In my contract, it said if he left the show or died, I had to be co-host. NBC didn’t expect him to die so young.

“That’s my legacy. I’m very proud of it. I had a very tough time with Frank McGee.” (Two years later, she would have an even tougher time with ABC evening-news anchor Harry Reasoner.)

Despite all the changes in the industry since the ‘70s, morning shows remain essentially unchanged, says Walters. “As someone once said, ‘You tune in to see if the world is still there.’”

It is, and so is Walters.