TV legend Mike Willesee dies at 76

Mike Willesee

PHOTO: OverSixty

The world of television has lost another legend with the passing of Mike Willesee after a long battle with throat cancer.

His career was long and varied and he became so big multiple TV shows were named after him.

Willesee’s interviews often resulted in headlines the following day - some good and some bad. His interview with Liberal leader John Hewson in 1993 is believed to have cost the coalition the election. Willesee asked Hewson about the proposed GST and how that would be calculated on a birthday cake. Hewson struggled to answer the question.

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Another interview in 1993 was heavily criticised when Willesee interviewed two young children, a brother (11) and sister (9) who were being held hostage. The interview was conducted by phone, stopping police from being able to negotiate with the person holding them.

There were lighter moments too; he appeared to be drunk when filling in for Jana Wendt on A Current Affair in 1989. Willesee claimed at the time he was on medication and was tired and emotional.

Nine, his home for many years, had this to say about his career at;

Born in 1942 in Perth, Willesee first graced Australian television screens in 1967 as a reporter for the ABC show This Day Tonight, where he gained acclaim for pressing the then-Prime Minister Harold Holt over his decision to appoint a new ABC Chairman.

In 1969, Willesee moved on to become the host of Four Corners, before moving to the Nine Network in 1971 to host the newly-debuted A Current Affair.

Willesee also spent a number of years at the Seven Network, where he presented a nightly current affairs program called Willesee at Seven.

And Chief Executive Officer Hugh Marks sent the following e-mail to staff to mark the passing;

I’m writing to you regarding the sad passing of Michael Willesee. His death has robbed us all of a trailblazing pioneer of journalism, the likes of whom we’ll likely never see again.

Our deepest condolences go to the whole Willesee clan at this time, including Allison Langdon and her husband, Mike Willesee Jnr.

The word legend is somewhat too readily conferred in modern times, but it describes Mike to a tee. He all but invented current affairs television in Australia at the ABC in the 1960s. Then later at Seven and Nine he moulded the medium into an art form of which for decades he remained the prime and most skilful exponent.

His particular skills as an interviewer are unarguably the stuff of legend. Most famously the ‘Willesee pause‘ where Mike deliberately allowed many seconds of silence to pass before his next question. He knew the power of silence, or a slight quizzical tilt of the head, would usually cause a hapless interviewee to fall into the mistake of speaking to fill the dead air.

This ‘gotcha’ technique came to represent Michael Willesee at his brilliant best. 

When others spoke too much, he said only what was necessary - the short, sharp question which everyone was thinking, but no-one dared ask.  He had a mind as sharp as a steel trap and a sense of humour as cheeky as his smile

But across the craft he always shone like a beacon. 

So many aspiring - and practising - journalists have learned so much from Mike. And everyone who practises journalism in Australia is in his debt. 

Mike was a modest and humble man. A big friendly bear of a man who worked hard, and back in the day, played even harder. But he was always a gentle man. Generous and caring of others, his presence would always light up the room.

Michael Willesee will be sadly missed but fondly remembered by all of us at Nine and across the media generally. Especially those who were fortunate enough to come into his orbit and to regard him as a friend.

The ABC tweeted out the following statement;

And the Seven Network has added their voice to the tributes pouring in;

“We are deeply saddened to hear Veteran Australian television reporter, Mike Willesee, has lost his battle with throat cancer at the age of 76.

The Perth-born journalist was known for his masterful interviewing skills.

Willesee dominated Australian television current affairs for 50 years setting an industry standard that few were able to match.

His final major TV investigation was for Seven’s flagship news and public affairs programme Sunday Night.

Our thoughts are with his family.”

There is no doubt he will be remembered fondly by viewers after appearing in our lounge rooms for over 5 decades.