Michael Robert Willesee
29 June 1942
|Died||1 March 2019(aged 76)|
|Spouse(s)||Joan Stanbury (divorced), Carol Willesee (divorced), Gordana Willesee (divorced)|
|Parent(s)||Don Willesee, Gwen Clark Willesee|
|Relatives||Terry Willesee (brother) Janet Shaw (niece)|
Willesee came to prominence in 1967 as a reporter for the ABC's new nightly current affairs program This Day Tonight (TDT), where his aggressive style quickly earned him a reputation as a fearless political interviewer.
Willesee figured prominently in the controversy that erupted over the decision in early 1967 by the Liberal government, led by Prime Minister Harold Holt, not to reappoint the ABC Chairman Dr James Darling. This decision was rumoured to have been the result of the government's anger over critical coverage of its policies on the ABC. Willesee's own critical comments about the decision on TDT on 2 April further angered Holt, who questioned the ABC's impartiality and implied that Willesee (whose father Don Willesee was a Labor Senator; in November 1973 he would become Foreign Minister in Gough Whitlam's Labor government) was politically biased. Holt's remarks backfired, as they provoked strong protests from both Willesee and the Australian Journalists' Association.
After TDT, Willesee hosted the ABC's flagship current affairs program Four Corners from 1969 to 1971. He then moved to the Nine Network, where he hosted A Current Affair when it debuted in 1971. He later left Nine for a role as news and current affairs director at the 0-10 Network, where he also presented a weekly interview program.
He joined the Seven Network in 1975 and hosted the first Australian version of This Is Your Life. He also presented a nightly current affairs program called Willesee At Seven which claimed a victory over A Current Affair in the same timeslot and led to that program being axed in 1978. Willesee At Seven later to become Willesee ‘81 and Willesee ‘82 before it ended in 1982 but Willesee began to produce documentaries for the network. He was known for a long-running friendship with a disabled boy named Quentin Kenihan, who had osteogenesis imperfecta. He was also known for sparring with the Orange People, who recruited in Australia during the 1980s. In 1987 the Committee of Skeptical Inquiry (CSICOP) presented Willesee with the Responsibility in Journalism award.
He returned to Nine in 1984 to revisit the nightly current affairs genre with Willesee as well as producing specials for the network, winning a Logie for Most Popular Documentary in 1986. One of the most significant interviews conducted by Willesee was the famous Birthday Cake Interview in 1993, with then leader of the Liberal Party, John Hewson. With the 1993 Federal Election to take place in only ten days, Willesee asked Hewson numerous questions about the proposed Goods and Services Tax (GST) that the Coalition wished to introduce. Hewson struggled to answer the simple question of whether a birthday cake would cost more or less under his government as a result of the GST. Willesee's unrelenting questioning along with Hewson's indecisive answers and his frequent stuttering made it appear that Hewson had little understanding of one of his own major policies. Hewson would go on to lose the election against Paul Keating and the Coalition would remain out of government for a further three years. Many political analysts believed that the interview cost Hewson's chance of winning what his supporters dubbed the 'unloseable election'. However, others counter that opinion polls held up until election day still predicted a Coalition victory.
In 1993, Willesee received public outrage for his controversial action of interviewing, via phone, two young children, a brother 11 and his sister 9 who were being held hostage. Many held the opinion that his actions were reckless and endangered the children's lives. This event was subsequently parodied by ABC TV's Frontline where main character Mike Moore interviewed a gunman and his hostage daughter. In the final scene of this episode, Mike interviews, live on air, another gunman in another siege who, much to Mike's horror, subsequently shoots each of his hostages, the sounds of which are played live across Australia.
Willesee is remembered by many Australians for the night when, filling in for Jana Wendt on A Current Affair, he fronted the show while appearing to be under the influence of alcohol. He claimed he was on medication, tired and emotional.
In his fifties Willesee rediscovered the Roman Catholic faith of his upbringing. He has reported on religious topics and in 1998 he made a report entitled Signs From God on the appearance of stigmata displayed by a woman, Katya Revas, in Bolivia. This documentary was watched by an audience of 28 million in the United States. In 1999, Willesee won the Bent Spoon Award from the Australian Skeptics for Signs From God. The rationale for Willesee receiving the award was that the show was "seeking to capitalise on the irrational millennial fears of many people".
In 2002, Willesee became the 19th inductee into the TV Week Logies Hall of Fame.
On 21 August 2006 Willesee appeared on Andrew Denton's TV show Enough Rope and spoke about his dedication to discovering what science can ascertain about the Shroud of Turin; specifically, whether it contains the blood of Jesus Christ.
In 2012, Willesee joined the Seven Network's Sunday Night to do high profile interviews. His first encounter was with Prime Minister Julia Gillard. In early 2013 he interviewed billionaire casino owner James Packer.
Willesee's parents were Don Willesee, a Labor senator and Foreign Minister in the Whitlam Government, and his wife Gwendoline. His brother is journalist and TV presenter Terry Willesee. He is the father of fellow journalists Amy Willesee and Michael Willesee Jr. and has another daughter Jo Willesee. He was the father-in-law of presenter-reporter Allison Langdon, and journalist and writer Mark Whittaker. He was the uncle of author and cyclist Janet Shaw, Terry's biological daughter.
His second wife was Australian actress Carol Willesee. She was originally cast in the role of Pippa Fletcher in Home and Away, and had filmed scenes for the pilot episodes (which were later reshot with Vanessa Downing). She died in 2006, aged 59, from Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease after being misdiagnosed.
In 2017, Willesee spoke about his battle with throat cancer on the ABC TV program Australian Story. He also revealed how he had returned to his Catholic faith after years away the church. On 1 March 2019, Willesee died of throat cancer at the age of 76.
- "Mr Michael Robert WILLESEE: Officer of the Order of Australia". Australian Government. 10 June 2002.
- Shore, Lys Ann (1987). "Controversies in Science and Fringe Science: From Animals and SETI to Quackery and SHC". The Skeptical Inquirer. 12 (1): 12–13.
- "Enough Rope with Andrew Denton - episode 115: John Hewson". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 7 August 2006.
- "Compass: The Conversion of Mike Willesee". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 9 March 2003.
- "Enough Rope with Andrew Denton - episode 117: Michael Willesee". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 21 August 2006.
- "Mike Willesee". Yahoo!7. Retrieved 27 November 2013.
- Natasha Wallace. "Hospital 'failed' to diagnose actress". The Sydney Morning Herald.
- Quentin McDermott (4 November 2017). "Mike Willesee, giant of current affairs, lays bare his life or death cancer battle". Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
- Sydney Morning Herald https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/mike-willesee-dies-aged-76-20190301-p5116o.html