The project began in March 1985. John Huddy, my executive producer at CBS News "Nightwatch," pleased with some pieces I'd produced, assigned me to produce an interview with Charles Manson, with the mandate that it "outdo" the earlier Manson prison interview done by Tom Snyder, which Huddy himself had produced. I didn't want the assignment, and I kept trying to get out of it, but still I went through the motions. I'd been with the show for a year, working up from associate producer to producer, overseeing segments, studio interviews, field shoots, mostly involving Capitol Hill and White House stories, some pop culture, having a great time. We were a 2am to 6am "talk" show, much the model for the later PBS broadcast that made Rose an icon, and Charlie Rose and I had known each other since working together in the late 70s at NBC News, where he was a correspondent and I was night assignment editor.
Nonetheless, this assignment was unique.
I contacted the warden of San Quentin prison, who gave a tutorial in how to proceed with Manson. "He doesn't have a lawyer," he said, "so, write to to him directly." He gave me the address. I wrote to Manson with a clear request: could I bring Rose and a crew to shoot an interview with him at San Quentin.
Weeks passed before a conspicuous white envelope appeared, half falling out of my office mail box, inside a letter of several pages, pencil scrawlings on yellow legal paper. Manson and I began a correspondence, me writing typed letters on formal CBS News stationery, Manson responding in the same scrawl on yellow legal paper. I labored over the language, policing myself to not fawn as is typical of many interview requests, and worked to convince him to sit for an interview. His objective was, who knows? His letters required a few reads, and then began to make "sense" to me. He wanted to be paid, but that wasn't going to happen. He had a long list of issues and complaints - about the prison system, media, government. I didn't respond to them specifically but was responsive generally, and straightforward. Also, per CBS News standards, we would do it only after, not before a parole hearing. Almost a year had passed when the warden called to inform me Manson had agreed to the interview. (I tried once more to get out of it. I asked every other segment producer if they wanted to go do the shoot. Huddy said I had to go.)
In March of 1986, we headed to San Francisco. The night before Charlie and I sat down to review our goals. There had been much to think through and prepare for. As part of the process I read and watched lots of archived media, interviewed lawyers and experts, and put together a research packet, and an interview outline, and included the Vincent Bugliosi book, "Helter Skeler," as a key tool. It had been a comprehensive effort, but on this night before we were relaxed, and we were ready. Early the next morning, Charlie and I, with cameraman Skip Brown and his sound man, arrived at the gates of San Quentin. We agreed to the chilling "no hostage policy" terms for entering the facility, got escorted through a series of large bolted and locked gates, and up a short hill to the prison.
A forensic psychologist who specialized in Manson encouraged me to not start the interview right away. He said, "You should ask the guards to remove the wrist and ankle shackles, and they will, and that will gain you some trust." I did that soon after Manson was brought into the room - small, bearded, pale as white paper, and in chains. Charlie and I introduced ourselves, and the crew. The handshake moment. Manson went straight for the huge windows that overlooked a sunny, sparkling San Francisco Bay. He stood there, quiet, silent, staring into the daylight. All the while, the three guards, each twice Manson's size, stood nearby.
Manson stood and stared like that for maybe 20 minutes, ("He's always in solitary, never sees daylight," the psychologist said) as CR studied his notes and Skip got set up and ready to go. We were bare bones. One camera. No elaborate lighting. We used the daylight. When it was time to start we did a little cover footage -- the guards bringing Charlie to the parole hearing table (no shackles) and Charlie and Charlie sat across from each other, Rose's back to the window, Manson facing the daylight. And so we rolled, breaking only to quickly change tapes. The psychologist also said Manson would start calm and get more agitated and physical as the interview drew to a close, knowing he was about to go back to solitary. That proved to be true.
Skip shot four cassettes that recorded more than an hour of Charlie Rose's focused and brilliant conversation with Manson. CR kept the narrative going on a "logical" path, as challenging as that was with Manson veering here and there, but wherever Manson went, Rose brought the interview back to the narrative path of his story and how he came to be convicted of "conspiracy," and sentenced to multiple life sentences, for seven murders, of Sharon Tate and the guests at her home, in 1969. When our allowed two hours of time was up, the guards put Manson back in his shackles and escorted him away. We thanked the warden, packed up and departed, quietly relieved to be back outside the prison gates. We shot some stand-ups outside the prison gates, for promos.
I returned to Washington with the tapes, and spent the next few days in an editing room with tape editor *Dan Radovsky, putting together an hour's worth of interview. Once it got vetted by all the required bosses the interview aired, and was well received. Charlie Rose received the acclaim he deserved. In a peculiar moment, Warren Beatty's office called to ask for a copy.
In September 1987, Charlie Rose and I stood together on the stage at the Waldorf Astoria ballroom, accepting the National Emmy Award for the year's best network news interview. It was a complex but satisfying win, and underscored a truth of journalism: often we're honored for shedding light on darkness.
I continued to hear from Charlie Manson for a short while, and also "Manson Family" member Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, writing from her prison in West Virginia, and others on Manson's behalf. He wanted a copy of the interview, and I don't recall whether one was ever sent. I did not answer his letters and he stopped writing.
I'm revisiting this episode today for two reasons. Going through a box of old stuff I came upon my file of Manson letters and transcripts of the interview, which prompted me to poke around the Internet, catching up with the Manson saga. I discovered that the interview is on YouTube. This was a surprise because long ago, after Nightwatch went off the air, I was told the show's tapes were destroyed, including the Manson interview. I have the transcripts of the original interview and the edited interview (I cut out only 8 minutes), and a few cassettes of outtakes, up in a closet, but that's all. This YouTube copy is rough, but at least it exists. If there is a best interview with Charles Manson, it is this one by Charlie Rose.
*Dan sent this message after reading the above post: "One thing I will always remember from editing that interview (something not in the cut piece) was, when leaving the room, Rose telling Manson he would send him a tape of the finished piece. Manson said, 'that's okay, I've already seen the movie.'"