By Richard Jerome
Updated April 24, 1995 12:00 PM

THE SPRING-AFTERNOON SUN IS pouring through the west window of Don Hewitt’s ninth-floor office in midtown Manhattan, but the kinetic father and guiding spirit of 60 Minutes is oblivious to its promise. Simultaneously it seems, he is pounding out commercial promos for next week’s show, selecting mail to be read on the air and hollering queries to subordinates beyond his open door. The phone rings and Hewitt picks up. “Hello…. Yes….Good….No, sir,” he barks, “you’ll have to write us a letter!”

“We get about a thousand calls a day like this,” he explains as he hangs up, beaming puckishly. “Everybody who has a fight with his wife or with the cops calls us. I guess it’s the ultimate threat—I’m gonna report you to 60 Minutes!”

With that, Hewitt hurtles back into the work of cajoling, nurturing and haranguing his 800-pound gorilla and its legion of handlers. For the past 27 years, he has seen the show he created grow from an unheralded novelty act—a small-screen version of a newsmagazine—into the longest-running primetime show in the annals of TV. Some segments, like Mike Wallace’s confronting the Ayatollah Khomeini, are historical documents, while others—notably Bill and Hillary Clinton’s response to the Gennifer Flowers scandal, which salvaged Clinton’s run for the presidency—have helped shape the events of our time.

Though challenged now by a host of increasingly lurid reality programming rivals, 60 Minutes remains stunningly popular and has spent a record 18 straight years in the Nielsen Top 10. “It’s an institution,” says Tom Shales, the Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic of the Washington Post, “and it’s twice as good as its nearest imitator.”

Hewitt’s show is also a cash cow for CBS, earning between $50 million and $60 million annually, adding up to more than $1 billion over the course of its 27-year run. So formidable is the 60 Minutes name that earlier this month, when Fox TV chief and tabloid mogul Rupert Murdoch supposedly expressed interest in buying the program, it set off a media tizzy “He called me and asked if I thought [CBS chairman] Larry Tisch would sell 60 Minutes,” says Hewitt, who denies Murdoch’s claim that it was Hewitt who suggested the sale. “I said, ‘Why don’t you ask Tisch?’ Murdoch said, ‘He’ll probably want $500 million.’ I told him, ‘That’s a bargain.’ ”

While Hewitt, 72, professes to be baffled by the show’s staying power (“Do people watch all this other s–t all week and feel that on Sunday they have to go to church?”), there’s no question that he is the mainspring that keeps 60 Minutes ticking. As executive producer, Hewitt is the mercurial man-child behind the shifting cast of star correspondents—whose alumni include Dan Rather Diane Sawyer and the late Harry Reasoner—and who oversees every molecule of the broadcast. At an age when most people are retired, in an age when all manner of media are run by corporate “suits,” Hewitt is a throwback, the last of a breed—a hard-boiled, hands-on boss who calls everybody “kid,” cusses like a stevedore—and, yes, answers his own phone—all the while bouncing around the hallways like a sixth-grader at recess. “What makes him work—and it can also make him a pain in the ass—is his over-the-top enthusiasm,” says Morley Safer, a 25-year veteran of the show. Adds Lesley Stahl, who joined the program in 1991: “Just yesterday I was having trouble with a story, and Don says, ‘Stop the tape!’ Then he goes, ‘Ooh, Ooh! Wait! Do this!’ It was as if coming up with this idea was the most fun he’d ever had in his life.”

There are media critics who periodically complain that Hewitt’s formula has grown tired and a little soft with age—particularly in some of the show’s personality profiles, like Wallace’s recent interview with Republican presidential hopeful Phil Gramm. Hewitt stubbornly won’t respond to the charges and pays his detractors no mind. Besides, the numbers are on his side—60 Minutes is projected to finish in the Nielsen Top 10 again, despite the loss of NFL football (to Fox) as a lead-in and CBS’s poor performance in general. Hewitt however deflects credit: “The fact is that I’ve never hired somebody I didn’t think was smarter than me—because if they’re what the hell do I need them for?”

Granted, he was never a scholar while growing up outside Manhattan in New Rochelle, N.Y. One of two sons of Ely Hewitt, an advertising salesman for Hearst newspapers, and his wife, Frieda, young Hewitt spent Saturdays at the movies, where he found his idol in Hildy Johnson, the ace reporter in 1931’s The FrontPage. In 1940 he earned a track scholarship to New York University as a sprinter. “I left before I could flunk out,” says Hewitt, who decided to pursue his dream by taking a $15-a-week job as a cowboy for the New York Herald Tribune. When World War II intervened, he joined the U.S. Merchant Marine and found himself in London writing for Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military newspaper (along with one Andrew A. Rooney, whom he knew only casually).

After the war, Hewitt worked briefly for the Associated Press in Memphis, but by 1948 he was back in Manhattan, writing captions for a photo agency. That same year he got a phone call from an ex-colleague offering him a job with CBS. When he first saw the lights and cameras inside the network studios, “I thought, ‘Holy s—t!’ ” he recalls. “I felt like Dorothy in the Emerald City.”

In the seat-of-the-pants environment of early TV news, the scrappy newcomer prospered. Within two years he was producing and directing the nightly news. In 1962, Hewitt became the executive producer of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, and he also prepared many of the segments for Edward R. Murrow’s legendary See It Now. Murrow he says, was courtly but unpredictable. “You never knew if he was going to ignore you or put his arm around you and say, ‘Hey, let’s have dinner’ ”

Freewheeling and flamboyant in pursuit of a story, Hewitt was never truly a starchy CBS type. In 1956 he sweet-talked a Navy pilot into flying him and a camera crew over the North Atlantic just in time to shoot the only footage of the sinking of the Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria, and in 1959, Hewiit got himself sworn in as an Iowa deputy sheriff so he could stay close to visiting Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev. He was also the innovator who invented the cue card (In a less inspired moment, in the days before TelePrompTers, he asked anchor Douglas Edwards to learn braille so he wouldn’t appear to be reading copy. The idea was quickly abandoned.)

In 1960, Hewitt helped demonstrate the kingmaking power of TV when he directed the presidential-campaign debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon—a first for both TV and politics. But his star plummeted four years later when CBS News president Fred Friendly reassigned him to the documentary unit, which for Hewitt was like purgatory. “Fred thought I was too glitzy—that I wasn’t serious enough,” he says. Three years later, Hewitt had his brainstorm: “I thought, what if we could package 60 minutes of reality as compellingly as Hollywood packages 60 minutes of make believe?”

The network was willing to take a low-budget gamble, and 60 Minutes premiered at 10 p.m. on Tues., Sept. 24, 1968, with Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace as its stars. Though the weekly medley of muckraking, features, news and commentary took several years to find its legs, the show was a ratings front-runner by the mid-’70s, competing with such Nielsen heavyweights as All in the Family. For Hewitt, the strength of 60 Minutes has always been in the writing most of which is done by the correspondents. “It comes down to four words: Tell me a story,” he says “Most people in TV put words to pictures; we put pictures to the words.”

Interspersed with its many laurels—including 49 Emmy Awards—60 Minutes also would draw its share of detractors. One persistent critique is that the show has often avoided coverage of larger issues—race, say, or the environment. “I don’t do issues—I do stories,” Hewitt retorts. “Somebody once said, ‘Do a story on acid rain.’ I told him, ‘Find me a guy whose life was ruined by acid rain, and I’ll do it.’ ” Inevitably the program has also been charged with bias. “You get the feeling they sometimes shape a story to fit their preconceptions,” says Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg. “I remember a 1991 piece on animal rights where the activists were depicted as screaming zealots while scientists against animal rights were calm distinguished figures in suits. It was incredibly slanted.” But Hewitt stands by his record—and his staff. “We have an editor,” he says, “whose sole job is to compare the cut segment to the uncut transcript and answer the question ‘Have we been fair?’ ”

That doesn’t mean Hewitt is complacent. In the last decade media critics began to complain that one of the show’s trademarks—Wallace cornering a malefactor with damning evidence—was becoming predictable. Hewitt eventually decided the critics were right, but he can’t resist a dig. “I used to worry that Mike Wallace was becoming a caricature of himself,” Hewitt says. “I stopped worrying when Geraldo Rivera became a caricature of Mike. ”

For his part, Wallace, now 76, speaks of 60 Minutes with serene satisfaction. “Best job in journalism,” he purrs. Like the other correspondents, he seems at home with Hewitt’s almost anarchic management style. There are no staff meetings, no memos and no assignment desk; story ideas emerge from ad hoc office exchanges and in hallway conversations. Hewitt is hands-off until a piece is ready for the screening room—but then the frenzied arguments begin. “Eighty-five percent of the time, Don’s right, but the rest of the time there’s blood on the floor,” says Wallace. He smiles warmly. “Wonderful.” Adds Safer: “After you’ve relieved yourself of every f–king word and curse and condemnation, it’s as if it never happened.” But colleagues caught in the crossfire do find it unsettling. Says producer Merri Lieberthal: “They start screaming, and I think to myself, ‘I can’t go through this again—enough already.’ ” (She has stayed on, however, for 27 years.) Hewitt says his management philosophy is simple: “I don’t let the correspondents—I call them my tigers—take themselves too seriously. I pull them aside and say, ‘Hey—quit acting like a putz!’ ”

Some ex-staffers have been fed up with what they see as a sexist “boys’ club” ethos pervading the show, where women don’t get enough airtime and where too few of them hold positions of power. Hewitt calls the charges nonsense and points out that more than half of his producers now are women. Still, accusations crop up periodically in print—but usually anonymously, perhaps out of fear of Hewitt’s power to retaliate.

One woman who bristles at the sexist rap is Marilyn Berger, Hewitt’s wife since 1979. “He’s not a male chauvinist in any way,” she says in the wood-paneled study of their spacious apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side. A former Washington Post diplomatic correspondent who now works part-time writing obits of internationally known politicians and celebrities for The New York Times, Berger was introduced to Hewitt in 1977 by an unlikely cupid—Mike Wallace. (Hewitt was at the time recently divorced from his second wife, Frankie Childers Hewitt, the executive producer of the Ford’s Theatre Society in Washington, with whom he has two children, Jill, 37, and Lisa, 30. His first wife, Mary, with whom he had sons Jeffrey, 48, and Steven, 47, died in 1963.) “For some reason I expected him to be round bald and not very attractive,” says Berger. “But when I opened the door, I thought he was absolutely gorgeous.”

The couple spend their leisure time playing Scrabble, watching Jeopardy! and weekending at their house in Bridgehampton, N.Y. In the ’80s they often entertained CBS founder William S. Paley; these days their circle of friends includes Peter Jennings, actor Hume Cronyn, former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his wife, writer Sally Quinn, who briefly anchored the CBS Morning News. It is ancient history that in 1973 Hewitt made a pass at her when both were on special assignment covering the London wedding of Princess Anne. When she rebuffed him, she claimed he tried to undermine her on-air performance during the royal nuptials. “I made a pass at her—I never denied that ” he says “But I wouldn’t make Hitler look bad on the air if I could get a good story.” Says Quinn, 53: “We’re all older and wiser now.

Wiser, maybe—but Hewitt, at least, seems impervious to the march of time. It’s the end of the workweek, and he has been at his desk since 7 a.m., hitting the keyboard, working the phones, exhorting the troops. Hewitt has almost six more years left on a contract that he says pays him “handsomely,” after which he plans to…get another contract. “I’ll still be here—I’m never gonna retire,” he declares. “I can’t think of my life without 60 Minutes. We’re so intertwined that I don’t know where I end and where the show begins ”