NEW YORK — CBS News paid tribute to late “60 Minutes” reporter Morley Safer on Thursday with some New Orleans jazz from Wynton Marsalis, a letter from the prime minister of his native Canada and a few hearty laughs.
Safer died May 19 at age 84, eight days after CBS announced his retirement and four days after “60 Minutes” aired a special about his work during more than 50 years at CBS, most on the newsmagazine he joined in 1970 in only its third season.
“I believe he held onto life until that broadcast aired,” said Jeff Fager, “60 Minutes” executive producer and once one of Safer’s story producers, at a Manhattan memorial attended by broadcast luminaries like Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppel and Charlie Rose.
CBS has become sadly adept at organizing these memorials as a generation of stars from the “60 Minutes” golden years died, including Ed Bradley, Mike Wallace, Bob Simon, Andy Rooney and founding executive Don Hewitt.
Safer came to CBS from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. He worked there before Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was born, yet one of Safer’s CBC colleagues read a letter from Trudeau at the memorial. Safer’s CBS career included on-the-scene reporting from Vietnam, where his story about American soldiers setting a Vietnamese village on fire angered the Johnson administration.
When he agreed to come to “60 Minutes,” he had it written into his contract that he would return to London if the show was cancelled for bad ratings. That was never an issue, and he did 919 stories for the broadcast between 1970 and 2016.
The current dean of “60 Minutes” reporters, Steve Kroft, was in the military working a public relations job in Vietnam in 1970 and recalled his boss becoming scared upon learning that Safer was coming to make a documentary.
When he later got to know him, “I could tell immediately that this was somebody who enjoyed inspiring fear,” Kroft said. In the cutthroat backstage world at “60 Minutes,” Safer and Wallace were often bitter rivals. Kroft was once baffled when Safer tried to steal a story from him, learning it was because it required a trip to France where Safer loved his expense-account meals.
His former colleague was “capable of inflicting as much damage with a wry comment as Mike Wallace could with a bludgeon,” Kroft said.
Fager has a framed “piece” from art lover Safer, who once had a gallery show of sketches he made of hotel rooms across the world. It memorialized a curtain stained by the coffee cup he once hurled at Fager. Safer titled it, “Weak Coffee on Cheap Curtain.”
Marsalis recalled conversations he had with Safer, who told him that when he died, he wanted a New Orleans jazz tribute. Marsalis asked him about traditions back home in Canada.
“He said, ‘We drank a lot,'” Marsalis said, before picking up his horn and, with his band, leading the memorial service’s audience to a reception.