Giants of Australian television journalism have gathered to farewell trailblazing current affairs producer Gerald Stone, the founding father of 60 Minutes.
Ray Martin, 75, Ian Leslie, 78 and Jana Wendt, 64, came together at Channel Nine’s old Willoughby headquarters on Monday at a memorial service for their late boss.
The three 60 Minutes reporters gave eulogies along with their onetime colleague George Negus, 78, who recorded a tribute from his home on the New South Wales north coast.
Jana Wendt spoke at a memorial service for founding 60 Minutes executive producer Gerald Stone on Tuesday. She recalled a man with a mellifluous American accent and a ‘thousand-watt smile’ who also had a fearsome temper
Ray Martin (pictured) called Stone ‘the Wayne Bennett of television EPs’ and 60 Minutes ‘a current affairs blockbuster that would change the rules’
Original 60 Minutes reporter Ian Leslie (pictured) described Stone as ‘a giant in our industry’, ‘our commander in chief’ – a storyteller, author, mentor and ‘inspiration to many’
Australian TV legend and 60 Minutes trailblazer Gerald Stone died in Sydney aged 87. Stone was the inaugural executive producer of the Channel Nine flagship current affairs program and later served as editor of The Bulletin (pictured)
Recent news-maker Hugh Marks, who stepped down as Nine CEO on Saturday, helped organise the event and was among those paying their respects.
Late last week it was revealed 54-year-old Marks was in a relationship with Nine’s former managing director of commercial Alexi Baker.
Journalist Stan Grant, 57, and 60 Minutes alumni Jeff McMullen, 72, and Mike Munro, 67, attended, as did Nine’s former head of news and current affairs, 78-year-old Peter Meakin.
Journalist Jennifer Byrne, 65, fellow 60 Minutes presenter Tara Brown, 52, and retired broadcaster Mike Carlton, 74, were in the audience.
The service was held in Studio 22 where early episodes of the flagship show were recorded, before it is bulldozed, along with the adjacent 60 Minutes cottages.
Leslie, who with Negus and Martin was an original 60 Minutes presenter when the program first aired on February 11, 1979, was master of ceremonies.
George Negus (pictured) gave a tribute to Stone from his home on the NSW north coast
Jeff McMullen (pictured) reported for 60 Minutes from 1985 to 2000. He was one of Stone’s former colleagues to attend his memorial service
Ian Leslie (pictured at the lectern) said he, Negus and Martin were not household names when 60 Minutes debuted and getting a call to work on the program was ‘like winning the lottery’
Still dark-haired, Leslie described Stone as ‘a giant in our industry’, ‘our commander in chief’ – a storyteller, author, mentor and ‘inspiration to many’.
Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Stone was the child of Russian Jewish immigrants and served in the US Army where he rose to the rank of first lieutenant.
He studied journalism at Cornell University where he graduated with a distinction and in 1957 began work as a copy boy for The New York Times.
Stone emigrated to Australia in 1962 and was hired by the Daily Mirror in Sydney and spent three months in Vietnam as a special correspondent for The Australian.
In 1967 he broke into television as a reporter on ABC’s This Day Tonight before being hired in 1974 for a new Channel Nine current affairs program, Federal File.
Stone’s biggest break came when he was asked by Channel Nine boss Kerry Packer to launch an Australian edition of the American 60 Minutes.
Tara Brown, who has been a 60 Minutes presenter since 2001, is pictured at the service
Ray Martin told a story about 60 Minutes reporter Mike Munro (pictured) once punching a hole in the wall of one of the cottages where the program was produced at Willoughby
Recent news-maker Hugh Marks, who stepped down as Nine CEO on Saturday, helped organise the event and was among those paying their respects. Marks is pictured
Packer’s instructions were simple: ‘I don’t give a f*** what it takes. Just do it and get it right.’
Leslie said he, Negus and Martin were not household names when 60 Minutes debuted and getting a call to work on the program was ‘like winning the lottery’.
While early reviews of the show were harsh, Stone’s vision soon shook up a parochial Australian audience which had been deprived of well-produced international stories.
‘This prime time warrior changed Australian current affairs,’ he said. ‘He brought the world into our lounge rooms.’
Leslie remembered Stone as a fierce protector of 60 Minutes and its journalists, producers, editors and cameramen. ‘A reporter could not ask for a better boss.’
Martin began his eulogy marvelling that so few of his old colleagues were dead.
Gerald Stone (front) with (left to right) early 60 Minutes reporters George Negus, Ian Leslie, Jeff McMullen and Jana Wendt
Martin (pictured) began his eulogy marvelling that so few of his old colleagues were dead. ‘It’s amazing how many people are still alive,’ he said. ‘I thought some of you had gone’
Wendt said would be forever grateful to Stone for giving her a start. ‘Gerald took a very, very big chance on me in the early 80s,’ she said. ‘He was crazy brave enough to gamble on a largely unknown, let’s face it, girl’
‘It’s amazing how many people are still alive,’ he said. ‘I thought some of you had gone.’
Stone, Martin said, was ‘simply impeccable’.
‘He was a touch tabloid, which was a good thing, and he was all class.’
Martin called Stone ‘the Wayne Bennett of television EPs’ and 60 Minutes ‘a current affairs blockbuster that would change the rules.’
He took a gentle dig at Channel Nine programmers who in recent years had shifted the 60 Minutes time slot.
‘I just can’t image Gerald letting 60 Minutes going to air at any time other than 7.30 on a Sunday night,’ Martin said.
Negus, whose father died when he was four, described Stone as ‘a very special individual’ who helped shape his life.
Jennifer Byrne, who appeared on 60 Minutes from 1986 to 1993, is pictured leaving the service
Broadcaster and author Mike Carlton (pictured) worked on the ABC’s This Day Tonight where Stone began his television career in 1967
‘Gerald was more than my guide and mentor,’ he said. ‘I realise that for me he was a father figure.’
‘The period I found myself working with Gerald was the closest I felt to being fathered.’
Leslie said Stone played his ‘ace card’ when he brought Melbourne newsreader Wendt to 60 Minutes in 1982. ‘In doing so he created an icon.’
Along with Negus and Martin he had initially been sceptical, asking Stone ‘Why are you putting on this beginner?’
‘We were pretty puffed up and boy did she show us she was wrong,’ Leslie said.
She remembered going to meet Packer at his Sydney mansion with ‘knees knocking’ and the support Stone offered the then 24-year-old.
Stone gave Stan Grant (pictured) the job of presenting the short-lived current affairs program Real Life on Channel 7
Peter Meakin (pictured) was the long-serving news and current affairs director at Channel Nine and an important figure in the history of 60 Minutes
‘Gerald said, “Please, please tell me you will have turned 25 by the time we put you to air”.’
Wendt recalled a man with a mellifluous American accent and a ‘thousand-watt smile’ who also had a fearsome temper.
Outbursts of rage first appeared as a trembling lip and sometimes turned into what was known as ‘the Force Nine treatment’.
Wendt once returned from the US to show Stone an interview with philosopher Noam Chomsky which she thought suitably combative but he considered ‘unwatchable’.
‘It was Gerald you set out to impress,’ she said. ‘You really wanted in a way for Gerald to bless your efforts.’
‘He was a powerhouse. A person with this awesome, instinctive nous.’
Stone gave Jana Wendt (pictured with Ian Leslie) a start on 60 Minutes in 1982 when she was a 24-year-old Melbourne newsreader. She quickly became a television star
Gerald Stone is pictured with famed 60 Minutes reporter Jana Wendt in the early 1980s when she joined original reporters Ian Leslie, George Negus and Ray Martin
Before 60 Minutes, while Stone was Nine’s news director, he sent journalist Malcolm Rennie and cameraman Brian Peters to East Timor after the Indonesian invasion in 1975.
Rennie, 29, and Peters, 24, were murdered along with three other newsmen who became known as the Balibo Five.
Martin said their deaths ‘left an indelible scar on Gerald’s heart’.
Stone was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2015 ‘for significant service to print and broadcast media as a journalist, editor, television producer and author.’
He is survived by his widow Irene, children Klay and Jennifer, and grandchildren Louis and Gina.
Current 60 Minutes executive producer Kristy Thomson called Stone ‘the godfather of Australian news and current affairs’.
‘His shadow continues to loom large over everything we do,’ she said.
‘What a man and what a life.’
How Gerald Stone built 60 Minutes
Gerald Stone set the standard for commercial television news storytelling and current affairs in Australia
In 1978 Gerald Stone was asked by Channel Nine boss Kerry Packer to launch an Australian edition of American current affairs show 60 Minutes.
‘Packer called me into his office and started reminding me how badly I had let him down over the years,’ Stone wrote in his memoir Compulsive Viewing.
‘With masterful timing, he suddenly switched from berating me to breaking the news I had just been given the most coveted job in television journalism, declaring: “I don’t give a f*** what it takes. Just do it and get it right”.’
On February 11, 1979, Australia’s own version of 60 Minutes was born with Stone the inaugural executive producer.
The show made its debut with three reporters who would become stars: Ian Leslie, George Negus and Ray Martin. Jana Wendt joined in 1982.
They were followed by a host of journalists who gained fame from the program under Stone including Jeff McMullen, Jennifer Byrne, Mike Munro and Richard Carleton.
Each Sunday at 7.30pm the 60 Minutes filed reports from across Australia and around the world.
Stone left 60 Minutes in 1992 and between 1995 and 1998 was editor-in-chief of The Bulletin magazine.
He served as head of current affairs for Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Network in New York and returned to Australia to become network head of current affairs for Channel Seven.
In 2000, Stone was appointed a director of SBS, where he was deputy chairman until 2010.