Mike Wallace Helped Me When I Most Needed It!


Mike Wallace and I didn’t start off as friends.

The great CBS newsman, who died Saturday at age 93, telephoned me when I was writing my first book, Family of Spies: Inside the John Walker Jr. Spy Ring.  It was 1986 and Wallace had learned that I was the only reporter who had gotten John Walker Jr. to talk to me.

At the time, Walker hated the media and didn’t want to talk to anyone about the 18 years that he had spent spying for the Soviets or how he had recruited his son, Michael; his brother, Arthur; and his best friend, Jerry Whitworth, as traitors.

For those of you who haven’t read my book or might not remember the case, John Walker Jr.’s arrest in 1985 was the biggest spy scandal in the U.S. history since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted and executed in 1953.

Walker’s treachery stunned the nation and Mike Wallace was eager to get the first television interview with him.

I was flattered that someone as important in broadcast journalism as Mike Wallace would call me. I immediately went to work to help him. I got Walker to agree to give Wallace an exclusive for 60 Minutes. At one point when Wallace was interviewing Walker, they took a break in filming and Wallace called me from the federal prison in Marion, Illinois, to check some facts. 

Wallace’s interview with John Walker Jr. was mesmerizing. It was Wallace at his best as an interrogator. In one memorable scene, Wallace eviscerated Walker by asking him how he could be so cruel as to groom his only son to be a traitor. It was such an incredible interview that Wallace was rewarded with an Emmy, one of some 20 Emmys that he won.

And what of my book and me?

Wallace never mentioned either. He and 60 Minutes basked in the limelight.

I felt duped and hurt.

As fate would have it, Wallace called me again two years later. He had read my second book, The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison, and was fascinated with the case of  Thomas Silverstein. At that point, Silverstein had been locked in solitary confinement for six years. (Today, Silverstein has been kept in solitary confinement for 28 years! The longest any prisoner in the U.S. has been held in such isolating conditions.)

Mike Wallace asked if I would help him get an interview with Silverstein.

 I told him that I was angry that he had never given my book or me any credit in the Walker case.  What happened next shocked me.  Mike Wallace apologized.  He told me that he had been going through an extremely tough period in 1986 and that he had done some things that he regretted.

The interview with Silverstein never came about. Wallace’s producers didn’t believe the American public would feel empathy for a convict held in isolation who had killed a correctional officer and also had been convicted of three other murders, although one conviction was later overturned.

Our paths did not cross again until 1996 when my book, Circumstantial Evidence:  Death, Life and Justice in a Southern Town, won an award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. The center happened to be honoring Mike Wallace for the many contributions that he had made to social justice during his career.

Mike and I spent time chatting during the award ceremony. He was incredibly smart, quick on his feet, worldly, personable, and not vain or pretentious despite his fame and accomplishments.

When my son, Mike, was arrested several years later after he broke into a stranger’s house to take a bubble bath during a delusional mental breakdown, I sent a  fax to Mike Wallace’s office. I was desperate, terrified, and I asked for his help.

I explained that my son had been hospitalized, but his doctor had telephoned and said the hospital was going to discharge him even though he wasn’t ready. Our insurance company didn’t want to pay for any more of his care.

Fifteen minutes after I sent that fax, Mike Wallace called me and we spent an hour on the phone.  I knew that he had suffered from clinical depression, but I hadn’t known how sick he really was. He told me about how he’d become exhausted by the pressures that he was under, especially because of the legal problems that had been brought on by the infamous Westmoreland lawsuit against CBS.  He mentioned how he had talked openly on 60 Minutes about how he’d considered suicide in 1986 — the very year when we’d first met.

He told me to “have hope” and then he did something truly incredible.

In my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, I write that I called the hospital and told them that I was friends with Mike Wallace. I explain in my book that that threat was enough to make hospital officials reconsider their decision to discharge my son.

 But that wasn’t the entire story.

I wrote it that way because Mike Wallace asked me to write it that way. He didn’t think CBS would appreciate what he actually did for me. Now that he has died, I can tell the rest of the story. 

Mike Wallace called the hospital too. He telephoned and said he was curious why the hospital was discharging my son when his own doctor didn’t think he was ready.

The result. My son wasn’t discharged. He got the help that he needed.

Although he was busy, Mike Wallace telephoned me several times after that to ask about my son. We became friends and in one of those calls, he mentioned the Walker story and how I had helped him and he had not given my book or me any credit.

He told me that he had repaid his debt. 

I told him that what I had done for him paled in comparison for what he’d done for my family and me.

Mike Wallace was a hero of mine in journalism long before I ever met him. His journalistic contributions are legendary and the rest of the world will remember him as a crusading, bare knuckles journalist.

But to those of us with mental disorders or with loved ones who have mental disorders, Mike Wallace will be remembered for his bravery in speaking out about his own personal struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts — and by doing so, fighting stigma and prejudice.

He was a champion for our cause and he was a true friend to me.

I will miss him.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Mary Margaret says

    I greatly admired Mike Wallace. Thanks for sharing this story about him.

  2. Great Stories. I have two Mike Wallace stories. He did one of his psychotic killer on rampage stories in 1980s and was not an independent advocate at that time, I believed all the politically correct BS about violence and mental illness and how stigma really existed. I sent him a note, and he called me. We argued for a few minutes, and I was shocked that 60 minutes aired my note to him. I saw him at some NARSAD events and he was very gracious. His assistance with your son gives me greater faith in my advice to people who are trying to get better care: if all else fails, go to the media. Families usually fear their ill relative will get worse care, but that never happens. If authorities think media will get involved, they will do better. Thanks for recollections.

  3. I would appeciate your reply to my enthusiastic, honest email.