MIKE WALLACE, CBS PIONEER OF ’60 MINUTES’
Mike Wallace in his CBS office in 2006. More Photos »
By TIM WEINER
Published: April 8, 2012
Mike Wallace, the CBS reporter who became one of America’s best-known broadcast journalists as an interrogator of the famous and infamous on “60 Minutes,” died on Saturday. He was 93.
Last Word: Mike Wallace
Times Topic:Mike Wallace
On its Web site, CBS said Mr. Wallace died at a care facility in New Canaan, Conn., where he had lived in recent years. Mr. Wallace, who received a pacemaker more than 20 years ago, had a long history of cardiac care and underwent triple bypass heart surgery in January 2008.
A reporter with the presence of a performer, Mr. Wallace went head to head with chiefs of state, celebrities and con artists for more than 50 years, living for when “you forget the lights, the cameras, everything else, and you’re really talking to each other,” he said in an interview with The New York Times videotaped in July 2006 and released on his death as part of the online feature “Last Word.”
Mr. Wallace created enough such moments to become a paragon of television journalism in the heyday of network news. As he grilled his subjects, he said, he walked “a fine line between sadism and intellectual curiosity.”
His success often lay in the questions he hurled, not the answers he received.
“Perjury,” he said, in his staccato style, to President Richard M. Nixon’s right-hand man, John D. Ehrlichman, while interviewing him during the Watergate affair. “Plans to audit tax returns for political retaliation. Theft of psychiatric records. Spying by undercover agents. Conspiracy to obstruct justice. All of this by the law-and-order administration of Richard Nixon.”
Mr. Ehrlichman paused and said, “Is there a question in there somewhere?”
No, Mr. Wallace later conceded. But it was riveting television.
Both the style and the substance of his work drew criticism. CBS paid Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman $100,000 for exclusive (if inconclusive) interviews with Mr. Wallace in 1975. Critics called it checkbook journalism, and Mr. Wallace conceded later that was “a bad idea.”
For a 1976 report on Medicaid fraud, the show’s producers set up a simulated health clinic in Chicago. Was the use of deceit to expose deceit justified? Hidden cameras and ambush interviews were all part of the game, Mr. Wallace said, though he abandoned those techniques in later years, when they became clichés and no longer good television.
Some subjects were unfazed by Mr. Wallace’s unblinking stare. When he sat down with the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian leader, in 1979, he said that President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt “calls you, Imam — forgive me, his words, not mine — a lunatic.” The translator blanched, but the Ayatollah responded, calmly calling Sadat a heretic.
“Forgive me” was a favorite Wallace phrase, the caress before the garrote. “As soon as you hear that,” he told The Times, “you realize the nasty question’s about to come.”
Mr. Wallace invented his hard-boiled persona on a program called “Night Beat.” Television was black and white, and so was the discourse, when the show went on in 1956, weeknights at 11, on the New York affiliate of the short-lived DuMont television network.
“We had lighting that was warts-and-all close-ups,” he remembered. The camera closed in tighter and tighter on the guests. The smoke from Mr. Wallace’s cigarette swirled between him and his quarry. Sweat beaded on his subject’s brows.
“I was asking tough questions,” he said. “And I had found my bliss.” He had become Mike Wallace.
“All of a sudden,” he said, “I was no longer anonymous.” He was “the fiery prosecutor, the righteous and wrathful D.A. determined to rid Gotham City of its undesirables,” in the words of Michael J. Arlen, The New Yorker’s television critic.
“Night Beat” moved to ABC in 1957 as a half-hour, coast-to-coast, prime-time program, renamed “The Mike Wallace Interview.” ABC, then the perennial loser among the major networks, promoted him as “the Terrible Torquemada of the TV Inquisition.”
Mr. Wallace’s career path meandered after ABC canceled “The Mike Wallace Interview” in 1958. He had done entertainment shows and quiz shows and cigarette commercials. He had acted onstage. But he resolved to become a real journalist after a harrowing journey to recover the body of his firstborn son, Peter, who died at 19 in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962.
“He was going to be a writer,” Mr. Wallace said in the interview with The Times. “And so I said, ‘I’m going to do something that would make Peter proud.’ ”
Forging a Career Path
He set his sights on CBS News and joined the network as a special correspondent. He was soon anchoring “The CBS Morning News With Mike Wallace” and reporting from Vietnam. Then he caught the eye of Richard Nixon.
Running for president, Nixon offered Mr. Wallace a job as his press secretary shortly before the 1968 primaries began. “I thought very, very seriously about it,” Mr. Wallace told The Times. “I regarded him with great respect. He was savvy, smart, hard working.”
But Mr. Wallace turned Nixon down, saying that putting a happy face on bad news was not his cup of tea.
Only months later “60 Minutes” made its debut, at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 1968.
It was something new on the air: a “newsmagazine,” usually three substantial pieces of about 15 minutes each — a near-eternity on television. Mr. Wallace and Harry Reasoner were the first co-hosts, one fierce, one folksy.
The show was the brainchild of Don Hewitt, a producer who was “in bad odor at CBS News at the time,” Mr. Wallace said in the interview.
“He was unpredictable, difficult to work with, genius notions, a genuine adventurer, if you will, in television news at that time,“ Mr. Wallace said of Mr. Hewitt, who died in 2009.
The show, which moved to Sunday nights at 7 in 1975, was slow to catch on. Creative conflict marked its climb to the top of the heap in the 1970s. Mr. Wallace fought his fellow correspondents for stories and airtime.
“There would be blood on the floor,” Mr. Wallace said in the interview. He said he developed the “not necessarily undeserved reputation” of being prickly — he used a stronger word — and “of stealing stories from my colleagues,” who came to include Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, Dan Rather and Diane Sawyer in the 1970s and early 1980s. “This was just competition,” he said. “Get the story. Get it first.”
Mr. Wallace and his teams of producers — who researched, reported and wrote the stories — took on American Nazis and nuclear power plants along with his patented brand of exposés.
The time was ripe for investigative television journalism. Watergate and its many seamy sideshows had made muckraking a respectable trade. By the late 1970s, “60 Minutes” was the top-rated show on Sundays. Five different years it was the No. 1 show on television, a run matched only by “All in the Family” and “The Cosby Show.” In 1977, it began a 23-year run in the top 10. No show of any kind has matched that. Mr. Wallace was rich and famous and a powerful figure in television news when his life took a stressful turn in 1982.
That year he anchored a “CBS Reports” documentary called “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception.” It led to a $120 million libel suit filed by Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the commander of American troops in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968. At issue was the show’s assertion that General Westmoreland had deliberately falsified the “order of battle,” the estimate of the strength of the enemy.
The question turned on a decision that American military commanders made in 1967. The uniformed military said the enemy was no more than 300,000 strong, but intelligence analysts said the number could be half a million or more. If the analysts were correct, then there was no “light at the end of the tunnel,” the optimistic phrase General Westmoreland had used.
Documents declassified after the cold war showed that the general’s top aide had cited reasons of politics and public relations for insisting on the lower figure. The military was “stonewalling, obviously under orders” from General Westmoreland, a senior Central Intelligence Agency analyst cabled his headquarters; the “predetermined total” was “fixed on public-relations grounds.” The C.I.A. officially accepted the military’s invented figure of 299,000 enemy forces or fewer.
The documentary asserted that rather than a politically expedient lie, the struggle revealed a vast conspiracy to suppress the truth. The key theorist for that case, Sam Adams, a former C.I.A. analyst, was not only interviewed for the documentary but also received a consultant’s fee of $25,000. The show had arrived at something close to the truth, but it had used questionable means to that end.
After more than two years General Westmoreland abandoned his suit, CBS lost some of its reputation, and Mr. Wallace had a nervous breakdown.
He said at the time that he feared “the lawyers for the other side would employ the same techniques against me that I had employed on television.” Already on antidepressants, which gave him tremors, he had a waking nightmare sitting through the trial.
“I could see myself up there on the stand, six feet away from the jury, with my hands shaking, and dying to drink water,” he said in the interview with The Times. He imagined the jury thinking, “Well, that son of a bitch is obviously guilty as hell.”
He attempted suicide. “I was so low that I wanted to exit,” Mr. Wallace said. “And I took a bunch of pills, and they were sleeping pills. And at least they would put me to sleep, and maybe I wouldn’t wake up, and that was fine.”
Later in life he discussed his depression and advocated psychiatric and psycho-pharmaceutical treatment.
The despair and anger he felt over the documentary were outdone 13 years later when, as he put it in a memoir, “the corporate management of CBS emasculated a ‘60 Minutes’ documentary I had done just as we were preparing to put it on the air.”
The cutting involved a damning interview with Jeffrey Wigand, a chemist who had been director of research at Brown & Williamson, the tobacco company. The chemist said on camera that the nation’s tobacco executives had been lying when they swore under oath before Congress that they believed nicotine was not addictive. Among many complicating factors, one of those executives was the son of Laurence A. Tisch, the chairman of CBS at the time. The full interview was eventually broadcast in 1996.
Mr. Wallace remained bitter at Mr. Tisch’s stewardship, which ended when he sold CBS in 1995, after dismissing many employees and dismantling some of its parts.
“We thought that he would be happy to be the inheritor of all of the — forgive me — glory of CBS and CBS News,” Mr. Wallace said. “And the glory was not as attractive to him as money. He began to tear apart CBS News.” (Mr. Tisch died in 2003.)
Mr. Wallace officially retired from “60 Minutes” in 2006, after a 38-year run, at the age of 88. A few months later he was back on the program with an exclusive interview with the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
He won his 21st Emmy for the interview.
And he kept working. Only weeks before his 2008 bypass surgery, he interviewed the baseball star Roger Clemens as accusations swirled that Mr. Clemens had used performance-enhancing drugs. It was Mr. Wallace’s last appearance on television, CBS said.
Myron Leon Wallace was born in Brookline, Mass., on May 9, 1918, one of four children of Friedan and Zina Wallik, who had come to the United States from a Russian shtetl before the turn of the 20th century. (Friedan became Frank and Wallik became Wallace in the American melting pot.) His father started as a wholesale grocer and became an insurance broker.
Myron came out of Brookline High School with a B-minus average, worked his way through the University of Michigan, graduating in 1939. (Decades later he was deeply involved in two national programs for journalists based at the university: the Livingston Awards, given to talented reporters under 35, and the Knight-Wallace fellowships, a sabbatical for midcareer reporters; its seminars are held at Wallace House, which he purchased for the programs.)
After he graduated from college, he went almost immediately into radio, starting at $20 a week at a station with the call letters WOOD-WASH in Grand Rapids, Mich. (It was jointly owned by a furniture trade association, a lumber company and a laundry.) He went on to Detroit and Chicago stations as narrator and actor on shows like “The Lone Ranger,” acquiring “Mike” as his broadcast name.
In 1943 he enlisted in the Navy, did a tour of duty in the Pacific and wound up as a lieutenant junior grade in charge of radio entertainment at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.
Mr. Wallace married his first wife, Norma Kaphan, in 1940; they were divorced in 1948. Besides Peter, who died in the mountain-climbing accident, they had a second son, Chris Wallace, the television journalist now at Fox News.
Mr. Wallace and his second wife, Buff Cobb, an actress, were married in 1949 and took to the air together, in a talk show called “Mike and Buff,” which appeared first on radio and then television. “We overdid the controversy pattern of the program,” she said after their divorce in 1954. “You get into a habit of bickering a little, and you carry it over into your personal lives.”
Ms. Cobb died in 2010.
His marriage to his third wife, Lorraine Perigord, which lasted 28 years, ended with her departure for Fiji. His fourth wife, Mary Yates, was the widow of one of his best friends — his “Night Beat” producer, Ted Yates, who died in 1967 while on assignment for NBC News during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Besides his wife and his son, Chris, Mr. Wallace is survived by a stepdaughter, Pauline Dora; two stepsons, Eames and Angus Yates; seven grandchildren, and four great grandchildren.
Mr. Wallace and Ms. Yates were married in 1986 and lived for a time in a Park Avenue duplex in Manhattan and in a bay-front house on Martha’s Vineyard, where their social circle included the novelist William Styron and the humorist Art Buchwald.
All three men “suffered depression simultaneously,” Mr. Wallace said in an interview in 2006, “so we walked around in the rain together on Martha’s Vineyard and consoled each other,” adding, “We named ourselves the Blues Brothers.” Mr. Styron died in 2006 and Mr. Buchwald in 2007.
Mr. Wallace said that Ms. Yates had saved his life when he came close to suicide before they married, and that their marriage had saved him afterward.
He also said that he had known since he was a child that he wanted to be on the air. He felt it was his calling. He said he wanted people to ask: “Who’s this guy, Myron Wallace?”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: April 11, 2012
An obituary on Monday about the television journalist Mike Wallace referred incorrectly to an interview he conducted for the CBS News program “60 Minutes” with the chemist Jeffrey Wigand, who said tobacco executives had lied when they testified before Congress that they believed nicotine was not addictive. While CBS did not broadcast the interview in November 1995 as originally scheduled, it did indeed broadcast it three months later; it is not the case that “the interview was not broadcast.” The obituary also misstated the year when “60 Minutes” moved to its longtime time slot, Sunday nights at 7. It was 1975, not 1970.
ANDREW LOVE, SAXOPHONIST WITH THE MEMPHIS HORNS
Published: April 14, 2012
Andrew Love, a tenor saxophonist who as half of the Memphis Horns helped define what came to be known as the Memphis sound, infusing 83 gold and platinum records with instrumental buoyancy, died on Thursday at his home in Memphis. He was 70.
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, Willie.
Mr. Love was black, tall and laid back. His musical partner, the trumpeter Wayne Jackson, was white, short and intense. After meeting at Stax Records in the mid-1960s, they became a singular musical force, backing up label performers like Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and Isaac Hayes. They went on to add ballast and blast to soul performers on other labels, like Atlantic’s Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett.
The Memphis Horns helped shape classic records like Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds,” Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man.” They backed up Stephen Stills, Rod Stewart, the Doobie Brothers, Joe Cocker, Sting, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Gabriel, U2, Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson, B. B. King and Robert Cray.
When Mr. Love and Mr. Jackson toured, they sometimes hired others to expand their sound. But the preponderance of their work was in the studio, where they added their artistry to recordings they had never heard before.
They worked out their arrangements spontaneously. After listening to a few bars of a recording, Mr. Love might “hear” a saxophone lick, and Mr. Jackson might “hear” a trumpet lick, Mr. Love told The Commercial Appeal of Memphis in 1996. They would devise lines on the spot and hum them to each other, then practice them briefly and record their parts twice, effectively doubling the instruments. The third time through, Mr. Jackson would add a part on trombone.
Even with gold records to hang on their walls, the two musicians remained in the background, or at least until this February, when the Memphis Horns received a lifetime achievement Grammy. The only previous group of backing musicians to receive that honor were Motown’s Funk Brothers. Neil R. Portnow, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences called the Horns “the breath of soul.”
Andrew Maurice Love was born in Memphis on Nov. 21, 1941, three days before Mr. Jackson. He got his first saxophone in the ninth grade from his mother, a church organist. His father, the minister of Mount Nebo Baptist Church, was pleased when his son played “Amazing Grace” there. He was less charmed when he began playing in nightclubs the next year.
After attending Langston University in Oklahoma for a year on a music scholarship, Mr. Love did recording for Hi Records in Memphis. After hearing that Stax, which preferred horns to backup singers, was looking for a saxophonist, he got a job there. The next day he was playing with Mr. Jackson on a Rufus Thomas record.
“His individual tone and mine blended in a certain way that was unique.” Mr. Jackson told The Commercial Appeal this year. “We realized it from the start. You can’t make that stuff happen. It was fate.”
Fate may have also intervened on Dec. 10, 1967, when the two musicians had been scheduled to tour with Otis Redding. Instead they remained behind in Memphis to overdub the horn parts to Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.” Redding’s plane crashed that day in a Wisconsin lake, killing Redding and many others on board. Only one musician survived.
In 1969 Mr. Love and Mr. Jackson left Stax because the label wanted them to record for it exclusively. For the next 30 years, they lent their distinctive sound to countless singers. “They all got a little Memphis on them,” Mr. Jackson said.
Mr. Love’s Alzheimer’s disease had kept him from working since 2004, when the Memphis Horns recorded an instrumental album, “Perkin’ It Up.” It was released last November in honor of their 70th birthdays.
Mr. Love’s first marriage, to Jacqueline Hendricks, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, the former Willie Davis, he is survived by his brother, Roy; his sons, Vincent and Andre; his daughters, Terri Lawrence and Angela Parker; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
“It has been a magical journey,” Mr. Jackson said in accepting the Grammy in February. (Mr. Love was too ill to attend the ceremony.) “We had a fine time.”
JAMAA FANAKA, FILM DIRECTOR WHO FOUND SUCCESS IN 1979 WITH ‘PENITENTIARY’
Jamaa Fanaka in 1990.
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: April 12, 2012
Jamaa Fanaka, a filmmaker who had considerable success in 1979 with “Penitentiary,” a feature-length movie he made while still in film school, but who claimed to have been blacklisted afterward for raising questions about the dearth of jobs for black directors in Hollywood, died on April 1 in Los Angeles. He was 69. The cause was complications of diabetes, his family said.
Mr. Fanaka was part of what film scholars called the L.A. Rebellion, a small group of black U.C.L.A. film school graduates who came of age in the late 1970s, near the end of the so-called blaxploitation era. The group’s defining aesthetic was to move beyond pimp stereotypes and funk soundtracks in film portrayals of blacks.
Unlike most of the others, including the avant-garde filmmakers Charles Burnett (“Killer of Sheep,” “My Brother’s Wedding”) and Julie Dash (“Daughters of the Dust”), Mr. Fanaka, a Billy Wilder fan, wanted to make movies that were both serious and popular.
“Penitentiary,” starring Leon Isaac Kennedy as a wrongfully imprisoned man who finds personal redemption as a prison boxer, received mixed reviews but became the most financially successful independent movie of 1979. As luck would have it he released it during the first boom in affordable VCRs and movies on videocassette. He made sequels to “Penitentiary” in 1982 and 1987.
The film was also considered an artistic breakthrough. Allyson Nadia Field, a professor of cinema studies at U.C.L.A. who last year helped organize a retrospective featuring the movies of the L.A. Rebellion, called “Penitentiary” “the transition moment between blaxploitation and independent black filmmaking.”
“People think the beginning of independent black filmmmaking was ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ “ she said, referring to Spike Lee’s 1986 watershed hit. “But really, it was Fanaka’s ‘Penitentiary.’ “
Mr. Fanaka’s became one of the few black members of the Directors Guild of America, but he found the guild to be insular — pretty much like the rest of the film industry, he told interviewers — saying it rarely acted on its promises to encourage studios to hire more women and members of minority groups.
When his attempts to change that quietly were ignored, Mr. Fanaka became dogged. He brought a series of class-action lawsuits against the guild in the early 1990s, claiming that its informal, word-of-mouth system of alerting directors about job opportunities was inherently discriminatory, and a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The suits, which were eventually thrown out on technicalities by a federal judge, sought a more transparent system of notification, and the establishment of minority training programs. (The guild declined to comment.)
“He wrote the briefs himself; he paid the court costs; it became his mission for future filmmakers, was how he saw it,” said Jacqueline Stewart, a professor of radio, television and film and African-American studies at Northwestern University, who interviewed Mr. Fanaka for the L.A. Rebellion retrospective. “It was very upsetting for him to talk about it,” she added. “He said he felt like he had been erased from history. It’s hard to prove these things, but I think it’s safe to say at the very least that his career suffered.”
Mr. Fanaka rejected some movie opportunities after “Penitentiary” because he considered them to be in the blaxploitation mold, Ms. Stewart said. He felt Hollywood was limiting him to genres he found demeaning to blacks, she said, even though he had proved that he could make a successful feature film.
Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the U.C.L.A. film and television archive, said of Mr. Fanaka: “In a way his major accomplishment was a kind of a failure — to have tried and failed to significantly change the racial politics of his profession. He was punished for it. The guild, the studios, they treated him like a crank. But he was not a crank. He was legitimately concerned about the future.”
Mr. Fanaka was born Walter Gordon on Sept. 6, 1942, in Jackson, Miss., one of five children of Robert and Beatrice Gordon. His parents moved to the Los Angeles area when he was a boy. His father was an electrician.
After serving in the Air Force, he told interviewers, he was adrift until he entered a community college film program, which led him to the U.C.L.A. film school. He was the only student there to make three commercial feature films before graduating: “Welcome Home, Brother Charles” (1975), “Emma Mae,” (1976) and “Penitentiary” (1979). He graduated summa cum laude and by then had changed his name to Jamaa Fanaka, derived from the Swahili for “together we will find success.”
His survivors include three daughters, Tracey Gordon, Twyla Louis and Katina Scott; a son, Michael Gordon; his parents, Robert and Beatrice Gordon; two brothers, Joseph and Robert Gordon; a sister, Carmen Sanford; and nine grandchildren.
At his death Mr. Fanaka was working on his eighth film, a documentary about hip-hop culture. He told the film blogger Jeff Brummett recently that he wished he had made more films, but that he was proud of what he had accomplished, both as a filmmaker and as an activist.
“I exposed the Achilles’ heel of Hollywood,” he said.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: April 13, 2012
An earlier version of this article misstated when Mr. Fanaka made the film “Penitentiary.” It was made while he attended film school and released after his graduation.
LUKE ASKEW, CHARACTER ACTOR
By DANIEL E. SLOTNIK
Published: April 13, 2012
Luke Askew, a character actor perhaps best remembered as the wayward stranger who brings Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper to a hippie commune in the 1969 motorcycle odyssey “Easy Rider,” died on March 29 at his home in Lake Oswego, Ore. He was 80.
He died following a long illness, his wife, Maggie, said.
Mr. Askew had remained active. Most recently he played Hollis Greene, the leader and prophet of a polygamist cult, in the popular HBO series “Big Love.”
Mr. Askew’s first film role was alongside Michael Caine and Faye Dunaway in “Hurry Sundown,” Otto Preminger’s 1967 racially charged drama. Later that year he played Boss Paul, a sadistic prison guard, in “Cool Hand Luke,” with Paul Newman.
“Paul used to invite me into his dressing room on the set of ‘Cool Hand Luke’ and start telling me what the business was like,” Mr. Askew said in an interview. “I was so full of myself that I didn’t pay attention.”
“Cool Hand Luke” led to the role of Sergeant Provo in John Wayne’s 1968 Vietnam War film, “The Green Berets.” He then traded fatigues for facial hair, spectacles and a paisley head scarf as the hitchhiker who escorts the motorcyclists Wyatt (Mr. Fonda) and Billy (Mr. Hopper) to a commune in “Easy Rider.”
The character fit the film’s countercultural flavor. At one point he is asked where he’s from. “A city,” he replies. Asked to elaborate, he says: “It doesn’t make any difference what city. All cities are alike. That’s why I’m out here now.”
Mr. Askew went on to play the thug Automatic Slim in the 1977 action film “Rolling Thunder” and a sheriff in the 2001 horror movie “Frailty.” He appeared on television in “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Murder, She Wrote” and other shows.
Francis Luke Askew was born on Mar. 26, 1932 in Macon, Ga. He attended the University of Georgia and acted Off Broadway.
Besides his wife, he is survived by a son, Christopher; a daughter, Allison, from a previous marriage; and one grandson.
AHMED BEN BELLA, REVOLUTIONARY WHO LED ALGERIA AFTER INDEPENDENCE
By JOSEPH R. GREGORY
Published: April 11, 2012
Ahmed Ben Bella, a farmer’s son who fought for France in World War II, turned against it in the brutal struggle for Algerian independence and rose to become Algeria’s first elected president, has died at his home in Algiers, the capital. He was 93.
The state news agency announced his death on Wednesday morning.
Tall, athletic, handsome and charismatic, Mr. Ben Bella was known for his quick mind, courage and political cunning, traits that became tools of survival in a turbulent life. He faced heavy combat in wartime France and Italy, escaped French assassination attempts as well as a prison, then survived the murderous intrigues of political rivals as he struggled to impose socialism on his sprawling, divided country in the anarchy that followed independence in 1962.
On June 19, 1965, after less than three years as prime minister and president, he was ousted in a coup led by an old ally. He spent the next 14 years in confinement and never again held power. But he remained a powerful voice for the third world amid the conflicts of the cold war and the unrest within the Arab world over Israel, Iraq and radical Islam.
“My life is a life of combat,” he told an interviewer in his last years. “It is a combat that started for me at the age of 16. I’m 90 years old now, and my motivation hasn’t changed; it’s the same fervor that drives me.”
Ahmed Ben Bella was born on Dec. 25, 1918, in Marnia, a small town in the mountains of western Algeria, to a family with Moroccan roots. His father, a Sufi Muslim, supported his five sons and two daughters by farming and small-time trade. The oldest brother died from wounds received in World War I; two other brothers died from illness, and another went to France and disappeared in the mayhem of the Nazi victory in 1940.
Mr. Ben Bella chafed at colonialism from an early age — he recalled a run-in with a racist secondary school teacher — and complained of France’s cultural influence. “We think in Arabic, but we talk in French,” he said.
His education was truncated when his father officially changed the year of Ahmed’s birth to 1916 so that he could return to work on the farm. The move had unintended consequences: Ahmed was conscripted in 1937, two years ahead of his class.
He took to soldiering as readily as he had taken to soccer back home. He was promoted to sergeant and won celebrity as a soccer star in Marseille, France, where his regiment was based. In command of an antiaircraft section during the German invasion of 1940, he kept to his post, firing away as others fled, as waves of Stuka dive bombers pounded the city’s port. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
After the city’s surrender, he declined an offer to play professional soccer and returned to Algeria, where he joined a Moroccan regiment fighting with the Free French. Through 1944 he fought his way up the Italian boot, winning battlefield citations, including one for recovering three abandoned machine guns in the face of German tanks. Gen. Charles de Gaulle personally awarded him the Médal Militaire, the highest decoration of the Free French forces, kissing him, in the French military tradition, on both cheeks.
On May 8, 1945, as France celebrated the Nazis’ capitulation, a protest march in the Algerian town of Sétif against the cruelties of colonialism, made worse by wartime shortages, exploded into five days of rape and killing. More than 100 Europeans were killed.
The retaliation was merciless. An official report put the Algerian death toll at under 1,500; anticolonialists put it in the tens of thousands.
The brutality shocked Mr. Ben Bella. He refused an officer’s commission, returned to Marnia and entered local politics. The authorities, learning that he had joined an opposition movement, sent armed assailants to his farm to assassinate him. In a shootout, Mr. Ben Bella, wielding a semiautomatic pistol, wounded one.
The attackers fled, but Mr. Ben Bella was forced into hiding. He joined the resistance movement that was to become the Front de Libération Nationale.
In 1949, Mr. Ben Bella helped rob a post office in Oran, Algeria. Tracked down, he was sentenced to a long stint in the Blida prison. In 1952, with the aid of a file hidden in a loaf of bread, he broke out and went to Cairo, where he became one of the liberation movement’s nine top leaders.
On Nov. 1, 1954, as the French celebrated All Saints’ Day, the rebels struck, beginning a war of massacre and mutilation, summary executions and rape. Terrorists exploded bombs in busy nightclubs and shot down passers-by on crowded streets. French officers who had once fought the Nazis had Algerian prisoners tortured and shot.
Mr. Ben Bella spent most of the war outside Algeria, organizing clandestine arms shipments and coordinating political strategy. His life was in the shadows, but the French knew who he was.
In 1956, he refused to accept a package delivered to his Cairo hotel by a taxi driver. The bomb exploded as the taxi drove away, killing the driver. Later that year, in Tripoli, Libya, Mr. Ben Bella was waiting at his hotel when a French gunman entered his darkened room, fired and wounded him. The assailant, fleeing, was killed by guards at the Libyan border.
That October, Mr. Ben Bella and other rebel leaders boarded a Moroccan airline’s DC-3 flight from Rabat, Morocco, to Tunis to take part in a Northern Africa summit conference. The French Army, acting without approval from Paris, radioed the pilot, who was French, with instructions to land in Algiers. There the passengers were seized by French troops.
Gen. Paul Aussaresses wrote in his memoir, “The Battle for the Casbah” (2002), that the Army had originally ordered fighter planes to shoot the plane down but called them off at the last minute when it was discovered that the DC-3’s pilot and crew were French. Mr. Ben Bella’s arrest “was a mistake,” General Aussaresses recalled a senior officer as saying. “We intended to kill him.”
The incident, widely publicized, brought Mr. Ben Bella new prominence. Held in France for the next five and a half years, he was treated by the government as a valuable asset in a potential peace deal and kept in moderate comfort. Free to read, he completed his education, absorbing the idealistic socialism of the French left. In 1961, as serious peace talks began, he was in an excellent position to negotiate independence with the war-weary French.
The independence agreement was signed in Évian-les-Bains, France, in 1962, and Mr. Ben Bella returned to Algeria, where power was up for grabs. He suppressed the Communists, outmaneuvered his rivals and used his new post as prime minister to push through a constitution. In September 1963, running unopposed and supported by Col. Houari Boumedienne, chief of the Army of National Liberation, he was elected president.
“I am the sole hope of Algeria,” Mr. Ben Bella declared as he set out to forge a socialist state. Pledging that the new Algeria would “serve as a beacon” to the third world, he took to wearing a simple blue Mao jacket and issuing pronouncements like “Castro is my brother, Nasser is my teacher, Tito is my example.”
Still, he was shrewd enough to maintain ties with the West. A deal with de Gaulle’s government brought $200 million a year in aid, allowing France access to Algerian oil and the right to nuclear and missile tests in the Sahara. He accepted aid from both the United States and the Soviet Union.
But his efforts to push through agrarian and educational reforms foundered. A plan to have elected workers run the country’s farms and factories proved impractical, as did an appeal to Algeria’s women to donate their jewelry to the state.
“Ben Bella always wanted his teammates to pass the ball so that he could score,” a former schoolmate recalled. “He was the same in politics.”
As his profile grew overseas, his domestic base eroded. In May 1964, a bomb exploded in front of his official residence in Algiers. In June, violence flared between dissidents in the Kabilya region and the government. In July, Col. Mohamed Chabani led the Sahara regional army in a revolt that ended quickly with his capture and secret execution. Though Mr. Ben Bella had promised “a revolution without gallows,” other potential rivals were jailed.
On June 19, 1965, Mr. Ben Bella was deposed in a coup led by Colonel Boumedienne, his former comrade in arms. Mr. Ben Bella was thrown in an underground prison, where he was held for eight months. Taken to an isolated villa in Birtouta, outside of Algiers, he was kept under house arrest for 14 years.
Though a prisoner, Mr. Ben Bella was allowed a private life. In 1971, his aging mother arranged for him to marry Zohra Sellami, a 26-year-old Algerian journalist. The couple adopted two children. Information about his survivors was not immediately available.
Colonel Boumedienne died in 1978, and in 1980 Mr. Ben Bella was allowed to go into exile in Lausanne, Switzerland. He returned to Algeria in the 1990s and took part in efforts to end civil strife there. He was present when protests erupted in 2010 in the first weeks of what became known as the Arab Spring.
Even in old age he remained a vocal observer of international affairs, opposing America’s wars against Iraq and the rise of global capitalism. Although he was critical of radical Islamists, calling their movement misguided, he remained a fervent Muslim, telling an interviewer that the Koran had been his comfort during long years of captivity.
“I am,” he said, “Muslim first, Arab second and then Algerian.”
Peter Braestrup contributed reporting.