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Willesee, Michael Robert (Mike) (1942–2019)

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Veteran TV journalist Mike [Michael Robert] Willesee has died at the age of 76 after being diagnosed with throat cancer in 2016.

The Perth-born journalist became a well-known name in Australian households after fronting Four Corners for two years from 1969, before moving to Nine's A Current Affair in 1971.

He started his TV journalism career at nightly current affairs show This Day Tonight and quickly gained a reputation for his fearless interview style, especially when it came to the country's politicians.

Moving through the ranks at ABC and Nine, which owns this masthead, Willesee went on to host the first iteration of This Is Your Life at Seven Network in 1975, before launching an eponymous current affairs program called Willesee at Seven.

Returning to Nine in the mid-'80s, Willesee gained national attention in 1993 when he put then-Liberal Party leader John Hewson on the spot with a question about how the proposed Goods and Services Tax would impact the price of a stock-standard birthday cake.

Hewson's fumbling response was poorly received by the Australian public, and many believe it led to his subsequent loss to Labor's Paul Keating in that year's federal election.

On Friday, Hewson remembered Willesee fondly.

"Mike Willesee was obviously a journalist with passion," Hewson said. "He really understood the importance of his craft and he made an enormous contribution to shows like This Day Tonight, Four Corners and A Current Affair. I think he'll be remembered very fondly.

"I always respected him and his contribution to the industry over many years. He really was a benchmark for the industry."

In late 2016, Willesee was diagnosed with throat cancer that had metastasised and spread to his lymph glands and lungs. After taking part in a temporarily successful clinical trial to treat the disease, the cancer returned in 2017, and Willesee started an aggressive round of radiation therapy.

Telling Australian Story in 2017 that he liked having something to look forward to in life, Willesee maintained an upbeat attitude throughout his illness.

"The thing that drives me on most, and this is interesting because I do have cancer, is that I don't want to start looking backwards," he said at the time. "I always want something coming up. I always want to have something in front of me, that I can do well."

Willesee was father to six children: Mike Jnr. and Katie with first wife Joan Stanbury, a former Miss Australia; daughters Amy, Lucy and Jo to second wife Carol Brent; and a son, Rok, with Gordana Poljak.

Two of his children, Mike Jnr. and Amy, followed in their father's career footsteps, with Mike a television journalist married to 60 Minutes reporter Allison Langdon, and Amy a journalist and writer married to fellow novelist Mark Whittaker.

In a statement, Nine CEO Hugh Marks described Willesee as a "trailblazing pioneer" and a "big friendly bear of a man".

"His death has robbed us all of a trailblazing pioneer of journalism, the likes of whom we’ll likely never see again," he said. "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 ... 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.

"When others spoke too much, he said only what was necessary.

"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."

A statement from the Seven Network, where Willesee spent a number of his later years reporting for Sunday Night, said Willesee had set an industry standard.

"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."

Willesee regularly filled in for A Current Affair host Jana Wendt during the show's heyday in the early '90s, and the TV veteran shared a tribute to her former colleague.

"Mike set the standard for the rest of us in broadcast interviewing. He was a master of the craft," Wednt said.

"The celebrated 'Willesee pause' drove many interviewees into calamitous admissions. His relaxed style coddled others into believing the killer question would never come. It always did, of course, with headline-making results.

"I doubt there’ll ever be anyone else with Mike’s charm and killer instinct.

AFL club the Sydney Swans also sent out a tribute to Willesee, in whom they had a die-hard supporter.

"The Sydney Swans would like to express their sadness at the passing of past President, Club Patron and life member Michael Willesee, who today passed away at the age of 76 following a battle with throat cancer.

"On behalf of Chairman Andrew Pridham AO, the Board, executive, staff, coaches, past and present players, and indeed everyone at, or associated with our club, we extend our deepest sympathies to the Willesee family."

On Friday afternoon tributes to Willesee flowed from the Australian media community, with many noting his "masterful" skill and tenacity.

Other Obituaries for Michael Robert (Mike) Willesee

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Willesee, Michael Robert (Mike) (1942–2019)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/willesee-michael-robert-mike-32952/text41057, accessed 3 February 2023.

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