On Oscar night it’s a tradition: The stars break down and weep — and that’s before they know if they’ve won or lost.
For almost 30 years it has been Barbara Walters’s job to squeeze the emotion out of the nominees (and others) in her pre-Oscar interview specials that have been as much as part of Academy Awards night as the red carpet, the snappy opening monologue, the production numbers and the reel of the recently departed.
And yes, she is back this Sunday night with another special, featuring the nominees Sandra Bullock and Mo’Nique. But Ms. Walters has put the stars of the future on notice: There will be no more pre-ceremony deep sharing with the woman who all but defined the celebrity television interview for a generation of viewers. This one is her last Oscar show.
The reason is not complicated. “I just feel, ‘Been there, done that,’ ” Ms. Walters said in an interview in her office at ABC News.
She said she had talked for years about ending the Oscar specials. “I began to feel the stars were everywhere,” she said, citing the numerous show-business series and the parade of guests on morning and late-night television. “What could I do that was going to be special?”
It wasn’t always that way. The Oscar night interviews, initiated in 1981, were, from the beginning, so special that stars would sometimes lobby to be on them, despite the frequent moments of lachrymose candor that seemed de rigueur.
But Ms. Walters, 80, is not even sure how the idea started for her to participate in Oscar night. She had been producing four prime-time specials a year, usually with movie stars mixed in with the newsmakers and politicians. Then one year, she said, somebody had the idea to drop one of the specials onto Oscar night. So Ms. Walters lined up Brooke Shields, Loretta Lynn and Ringo Starr — none of whom was nominated for an Oscar that year.
Which was what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences demanded, she said. “For the first seven years we were not allowed to do nominees,” Ms. Walters said. “Apparently they thought it would take away from the excitement. It was just the opposite.”
That should have been clear from the ratings for the first Oscar edition in 1981. (None since has had such high ratings.) But then ABC dropped the ball and didn’t schedule another one. “We were so good,” Ms. Walters said, “they decided to put on Luciano Pavarotti the next year.”
No joke. In 1982 ABC decided to have the opera star sing for an hour on Oscar night. “No one watched,” Ms. Walters said. She was back for good the next year.
ABC executives quickly realized the specials were the ideal opening act for the Oscars — because they could also serve as the closing act. With the show running live across the nation, ABC’s stations in the Pacific time zone needed a show that could fill the hour after the awards ended. Ms. Walters and guests were perfect.
This year’s show will include many clips of high and low points of the interviews through the years. Ms. Walters herself does not hesitate on the question of her favorite among the 29 years of star chats.
“Audrey Hepburn,” she said. “She did the show in 1989 and died four years later. She said unlike other stars she could not balance career and children. She chose her sons.”
But there were many others that she enjoyed: Lauren Bacall, who denounced Frank Sinatra for dropping her cold when she mentioned that they had been talking about marriage. (“Lauren Bacall is wonderfully grouchy, which is why she is so great,” Ms. Walters said.) George Clooney charmed her to distraction. Anthony Hopkins moved her with stories about his bouts with alcoholism (and his parting comment that he had to go because “I’m having a friend for lunch”).
The least favorite is not in dispute. “Warren Beatty was the worst,” Ms. Walters said. He rarely did interviews and her producer, Bill Geddie, was thrilled when they landed him.
“I told Bill, ‘We will rue the day,’ ” Ms. Walters said. She had tried to interview Mr. Beatty on “Today” earlier in her career, and he took an interminable time to reply to “Tell me about your movie.”
On Oscar night he was promoting “Dick Tracy” and, she said: “We did two hours. It was like pulling teeth. When we were done he said: ‘That went fine, but I can do better. Can we do it all over again?’ ”
“Why on earth did I do Teenage Mutant Turtles?” Ms. Walters said, looking back. “They came on. I said, “How are you?” And they cried on my dress — a flood of fake turtle tears.”
But if she swears she will not miss all the ball gowns and high heels — “29 years of ball gowns,” she said — she confesses to a bit of nostalgia for the long Oscar run. “I felt it when I left ’20/20’ too,” she said.
She is not packing up her microphone and going anywhere. Ms. Walters still has a high-profile home on ABC in her popular daytime show, “The View,” and she said that there might a change in that show in the future.
With Oprah Winfrey set to depart from her long-running syndicated show after next year, talk has begun to swirl that ABC may turn to “The View” as the way to fill the crucial vacancy at 4 p.m. — a time that leads into the local newscast and so is vital ABC’s stations and its affiliates.
That would mean transforming “The View” into a syndicated show from a network show, a move that carries some risk, but also the potential for enormous financial bounty.
Ms. Walters, who is a co-owner of the show with ABC, said: “It is possible? There are discussions going on. I hear the same rumors. Oprah has another year. The idea has not quite ripened to that point yet.”
Until it does — or doesn’t — Ms. Walters said she plans to stay busy with occasional news interviews on “20/20.” And she will still produce her annual “10 Most Fascinating People” special.
But no more Oscar nights. “I’m running out of gowns,” she said.