When Barbara Walters and our crew landed at Mehrabad International Airport, in Tehran, it was clear that the capital city of Iran was on edge. We were there to interview the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Pahlavi dynasty had been in power for nearly 53 years, but by 1977 the Shah was facing growing discontent that was about to explode into the Islamic Revolution.
It was in February that Barbara had called me with the news of the interview. It was to be an in-depth piece for a new prime-time series of specials that my company was co-producing with hers. I was also directing, and more than a little nervous about it.
Time was tight, and David Goldberg, our supervising producer, scrambled to get visas, tech gear, and our crew together. We stayed at the Tehran Hilton and spent two days surveying locations in the Shah’s 27-acre compound. There were palaces, museums, a helipad for his two helicopters, and a state-of-the-art speedway, where the Shah raced his many sports cars.
As we entered the Shah’s compound, we could feel the tension all around us. Security guards were everywhere, carrying machine guns and talking into microphones hidden in their sleeves. I saw it as a clear sign of impending revolution and possible, perhaps probable, danger for us all. Not our usual preparation for an interview!
On the first day of shooting, Barbara and I left the Hilton together and discussed our plan for the day. She was always well prepared. However, Barbara had just left NBC’s Today show, where she was accustomed to doing live interviews with strict time limits. I reminded her, “When you had three and a half minutes to interview Ted Kennedy, you had to interrupt the senator to keep him on subject. But you don’t have to do that with a taped interview. Just look them in the eye and let them talk. There’s no need to rush to the next question.” I also suggested to Barbara that when her guests finished answering her question, to just sit quietly for a few seconds. Most guests feel uncomfortable with the silence and will jump in and give you an even deeper, more revealing story. Barbara got it immediately.
The first setup was in the hall of the Green Palace, in which the walls and ceilings were made entirely of tiny shards of mirror, set in gold trim, which shimmered like a sparkling mosaic. We had hired a 26-man Iranian crew, none of whom spoke English. On the first day, the entire crew walked onto the set exactly one hour late. What was even stranger was that each crew member said exactly the same thing as they arrived: “Sorry … Auto accident.” “Sorry … Auto accident.” “Sorry … Auto accident.” Twenty-six times! Clearly the Iranian production supervisor had given the crew the wrong call time and, to cover, had quickly taught them three words of English to explain their tardiness to the waiting American producers.
Security guards were everywhere, carrying machine guns and talking into microphones hidden in their sleeves.
We then worked out a detailed plan in which Barbara and the Shah would enter, sit, and have a short interview. I said, “Barbara, when you and the Shah walk into the room, guide him to this armchair, because the background and lighting are best for him here. Then you sit over on the green velvet sofa that favors your best side.”
We placed Barbara and the Shah in the hallway for their entrance. Everything seemed in place. I began to roll tape to record. Five seconds later I called, “Action.”
“Action … Action!”
But the door leading into the room remained shut. Then a member of the Shah’s retinue tiptoed over and hissed in my ear: “His Majesty does not open doors!”
I stopped tape, and we decided that an aide would open the door and Barbara would enter first and guide the Shah to his armchair, then walk over and sit on the green sofa. I rolled tape again, called “Action,” and Barbara entered and walked directly to the armchair in which the Shah was meant to sit. Meanwhile, the Shah just stood there wondering where he should go.
I was in the production truck outside the palace, and I yelled, “Oh, no! That’s the wrong seat, dammit! I told her to go sit on the sofa!” The Shah reacted instantly with a very startled look on his face, as if he had heard me. But how could that have happened? I was in the truck, and I was speaking into my personal headset, which only the crew could hear. We quickly discovered an open headset had been left on the floor under the sofa. They had both heard me yelling. The Shah was a bit shaken. He was not accustomed to people screaming around him. Without missing a beat, Barbara said, “You see, Your Majesty, we have dictators in our country, too.”
Normally, I would have laughed, but my stomach was in knots. Here we were, surrounded by armed guards, in a country that was terrifying. Laughing was not going to happen.
“His Majesty does not open doors!”
Later that afternoon, we shot the main interview with the Shah and Empress Farah in the library of their private residence. Things were going well. Then Barbara brought up the topic of women. It is important to remember that Barbara had just become the first female news anchor in U.S. television history. Navigating her way through the male-dominated news business, being the highest-paid anchor in television—male or female—at the time, was not a walk in the park. She had to be tough, smart, empathetic, confident, and unfazed by any man in the room.
Barbara asked the Shah outright, “Do you think that women are equal to men?”
The Shah deflected, “Equal in their human rights? Yes, sure.”
“What about equal in intelligence?” retorted Barbara.
“There are cases, sure. You can always have some exceptions, and find fantastic women, ” said the Shah.
“Here and there,” interrupted Barbara sarcastically.
“But, yes, on the average,” said the Shah, “where is there a top woman scientist?”
“Madame Curie,” shot back Barbara.
“That’s one,” admitted the Shah.
Barbara seized on the Shah’s evasiveness. “But, Your Majesty, we’ve had a lot of trouble getting ahead, perhaps because of this point of view. Do you feel your wife is one of those rare exceptions? Do you feel your wife can govern as well as a man?”
The Shah sighed and, with a tight smile, said, “I prefer not to answer,” but he was getting angry, and the empress was obviously embarrassed. The mood was becoming very tense. The Shah knew he was getting cornered. Then Barbara went in for the kill.
“But you have made your wife the regent of this country. If you should die, your wife heads this country, and yet you’re not certain that she can govern as well as a man?”
There was a long pause before the Shah said, “I can’t say. ”
At which Barbara swung toward the empress and demanded, “Say something, Your Majesty. How do you feel when you listen to this?”
After another long pause, Empress Farah looked up to the ceiling and softly said, “Well, what can I say?”
The Shah’s face turned very red. He rose out of his seat, ripped off his microphone, glared at Barbara, and walked out of the interview. The head of the Shah’s P.R. team was standing behind me in the production truck. He was very, very nervous. “I have never seen His Majesty this angry,” he said. “Never!”
I quickly ran out of the truck that was parked next to the palace and dashed into the library, being stopped twice by security guards with machine guns who said I was moving too fast. People in the interview room were just standing there, not knowing what to do. Barbara gave me this look of “I went too far, didn’t I?”
I was worried that the Shah might refuse to show up for the remaining shoots the next day, or, worse still, confiscate all our recorded tapes, leaving us to fly home empty-handed. But just then Empress Farah approached and reassured us that His Majesty would be fine. She would talk to him later that evening and would make sure that her husband would be on location the next day, and he was.
I remember being so struck by both women. Barbara’s strength and fearlessness, and Empress Farah’s graciousness and courage. I’m certain, had men been in control that afternoon, the whole shoot would have fallen apart.
“I went too far, didn’t I?”
Two days later, when we boarded an Iran Air Boeing 747 to fly home to New York, we were each handed a gift from the empress: a quart of Iran’s finest purebred Beluga caviar packed in ice and wrapped in a beautiful Persian handwoven bag. When the interview aired that April, it was a headline grabber, a big watercooler moment.
A few months after the interview, the Islamic Revolution erupted, forcing the Shah and empress to flee Iran. The Shah would die in Egypt, in 1980. Empress Farah moved to the United States. She and Barbara continued to be good friends for many years.
Producer-director Don Mischer’s credits include the Oscars, the Kennedy Center Honors, Super Bowl Halftime Shows, and the Summer and Winter Olympics. His upcoming book is entitled 10 Seconds to Air: My Behind the Scenes Stories of Extraordinary Moments in Television