When Barbara Walters came on the scene, John Kennedy was in the White House, a motorist could fill ’er up for three bucks, and no one had heard of the Beatles.
On Friday, capping a spectacular half-century run she began as the so-called “Today” Girl, Walters says goodbye to ABC’s “The View.”
Behind the scenes she will remain as an executive producer of the New York-based talk show she created 17 years ago, and she’ll make ABC News appearances as events warrant and stories catch her eye.
“It’s not as if I’m walking into the sunset,” says Walters, who at 84 looks younger as she nurses black coffee in her dressing room amid a tireless pace that, in the same breath, she insists will soon be coming to a halt: “I’m NOT going to be doing a five-day-a-week show, and I’m NOT going after every big ‘get.’ ”
On Thursday’s “The View,” all 11 past and present co-hosts reunite to honor her as she retires from daily television. Hours after her big farewell on Friday’s “View” (weekdays at 11 a.m.), “Barbara Walters: Her Story” airs as a two-hour retrospective (9 p.m.).
“Then on May 17,” she pledges, “I’m going to be sleeping until noon. May 18, I’m going to sleep until noon.”
But what about the day after that? “People ask me, ‘How are you gonna feel?’ I don’t know! It’s a new chapter!”
Not just for her. Since the early 1960s, Walter has connected the dots during five decades of events, newsmakers and stars at NBC’s “Today” (1961 to 1976), as the first female co-anchor of ABC’s “World News Tonight,” on her scores of specials and a quarter-century co-hosting “20/20.”
And she did it after starting out as a “girl” who crashed the “Mad Man”-esque world of TV news’ male dominance.
Asked to speculate on what might land her name in history books, she cites the “many really wonderful young women now on television. If I helped to pave the way, that’s more important than if anyone remembers my name.
“And my longevity on the air,” she adds as a backup legacy: “That one can work as long as I’ve worked, and still be vital – it demonstrates there’s no age limit for people. And there shouldn’t be!”
Walters announced her retirement more than a year ago, and emphasizes it was her choice, motivated because it just seemed time.
“But I feel great,” she says. “I’m in perfect health. I’ve got a lot of energy.”
Not that she dismisses broader implications of this looming new passage awaiting her.
“I’m walking away from a career of 38 years, just at ABC News. So I think, ‘What’s the next milestone?’ The next milestone is DEATH!” A wry laugh. “Oh, thanks a LOT!”
But as Walters’ career thus far has made clear, she is nothing if not defiant, with a lifetime spent challenging assumptions and naysayers.
Just ask Bill Geddie, who continues as co-executive producer of “The View” with Walters in a partnership born some 25 years ago.
Back then, Geddie, a former “Good Morning America” producer in his early 30s, had grabbed her offer to produce Walters’ prime-time specials – and did it, he recalls, against everyone’s advice.
“They said, `She’s got two, maybe three more years. Nobody’s gonna watch a woman over 60.“’ And he laughs.
“I don’t think they realized, even by that time, how driven she was, how good she was, how this was not just a job for her, this was her life.”
Geddie acknowledges that now, finally, Walters faces a profound change in her storied life.
“But do I think we’ve seen the last of Barbara Walters? Absolutely not.”