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Barbara Walters: 7 years of asking the right questions

Barbara Walters rates herself an 8. In happiness, that is. In her new special, A Barbara Walters Special Celebration (Monday, Sept. 10, 8-9 p.m.), she asks many of her interviewees - ranging from Diana Ross to Joan Collins, Dolly Parton to Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler - how they rate themselves on a scale of 10 (in beauty). So, in an interview in her chic, mirrored corner office at ABC's ''20/20'' compound, I felt free to ask her the same question.

The special is a delightful celebration of seven years of interview programs, much of it footage that was never before broadcast, some of it carefully chosen excerpts from previously aired interviews, interspersed with charming reminiscences by Barbara. Although many of her guests are beauties, Barbara Walters, now a blonde, seems to grow younger and lovelier with each film clip.

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''Yes, 8,'' she says, smiling happily. ''And I haven't been able to say that in years. I have not felt this good about what I'm doing since my last year on the 'Today Show.'

''But in those days I was killing myself with work. Now, I seem to have it - both a career and a life of my own. I haven't had a life in a long time and I really need time for my daughter, who is now 16.''

We chat about those earlier days at ABC, when the world seemed fascinated by her $1 million salary and her co-anchor position with Harry Reasoner. Does she have better perspective on all that now that seven years have passed?

Although she smiles, there is a bit of sadness in her eyes as she recalls uncomfortable days. ''It could never have worked. But not just because of Harry. I was never personally angry at Harry, although I didn't know then that he was having severe personal problems. It was the beginning of major changes in ABC News. I would not want to go through that miserable year again. But on the other hand, I'm glad I'm here now.''

Did she learn something positive from the experience?

''I learned that I really had to start all over again and prove myself. And that you'd better have friends and family who are going to be there no matter what. You need that, because it can all go. And it almost did. But the specials kept going; they just went up and up in the ratings.

''That whole money controversy opened the door so that news people - if they are able to bring in the revenue - are now paid the same as entertainment people. Why should Johnny Carson get $5 million and Mike Wallace $250,000 or whatever? It wouldn't be fair. The same people who criticized me so terribly went in the next day and asked for raises and got them. Now, today, of course it is very different. Maybe it has even gotten out of hand with local anchors making $500,000. But you can say that about the entertainment department, too.''

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Barbara feels that the ''Today Show'' is very different today from what it was when she was on it. ''I think my happiest time was when we had three people who melded the best - Hugh Downs, Joe Garagiola, and me. We liked each other off camera and it showed on camera. There was great balance. There was also more hard news then.''

Who have been her favorite interviewees?

No hesitation here. ''I loved the John Wayne interview (a segment of it appears on the current special). It was the last one he did before he went into the hospital. ... I certainly didn't think I was going to agree with him politically, but I respected his opinions. He was so forthright, we all loved him. The whole crew asked to have their picture taken with him. So we all lined up like for a high school graduation photograph with John Wayne towering over us.

''I also treasure the last interview with the Shah and Empress of Iran. She said that no woman would be worthy of succeeding him as ruler. You could see the tears in her eyes.

''If I go through the list of interviews I have done, I realize I have rarely not really gotten to like the interviewee. By the time I do the interviews, I have prepared so thoroughly that I feel I know them.''

Jane Fonda, however, was an exception. ''The first interview with Jane was a disaster. She and I just didn't make it. She was exhausted and it was just nothing. We were both unhappy about it. Then, the second time, I went back and it was a wonderful interview. I would love to have her as a friend. I just thought she was terrific.''

Whom would Barbara Walters like to interview now?

''Michael Jackson, Bill Murray, Lionel Ritchie, and Michael Douglas on the entertainment scene. On the political scene, (Konstantin) Chernenko and Margaret Thatcher and, of course, I always find Richard Nixon fascinating. (Menahem) Begin would probably be especially interesting now, but he was sort of mad at me the last time because I talked about his unpopularity in Israel and he didn't like that very much. And I'd like to do (Fidel) Castro again.''

Does she keep in contact with Dr. Castro since her famous interview about six years ago?

She laughs. ''Well, I get a Christmas card from him every year. It's hand-delivered from Washington. I get it in April.''

Has the women's movement caused many changes in Barbara Walters's life?

''It's made an enormous difference. When I was starting, everything a women on camera did appeared to be strident. Now there are women on camera, behind the camera, in everything. It seems like the Dark Ages now, but it was only a short while ago that I was considered brash and tough and pushy because I was doing the same kind of work that men did. Nobody even asks me what it's like to work with men all day anymore.''

Has the world mellowed or has Miss Walters?

She looks startled for a moment. Then, she reaches out with one hand and makes a balancing gesture. ''Both. I've mellowed and the world has mellowed, too. So that we're now walking hand in hand, the world and I.''

Miss Walters is very proud of the Mike Wallace interview which will appear on the next edition of ''20/20'' (Thursday, Sept. 13, 8-9 p.m.), in which she asked him a difficult question, what she calls ''a gotcha question.''

''Do you have a gotcha question for the world?'' I ask.

She looks out the window as if searching for an escape route. Then she looks me straight in the eye. ''That's too tough a question for me, Arthur,'' she admits.

''But I do remember a long time ago seeing a cartoon in which a little man is standing at the information desk at Grand Central Station. 'Can I help you?' the person behind the desk asks.

''The little man replies: 'Why am I here? What does all this mean in the infinite scheme of things?'

''Maybe that's my gotcha question for the world.''

Electronic opera

Brian Large is the grand impresario of electronic opera. In the past 20 years he has directed just about every major opera on television.

On Saturday, Sept. 8 (PBS, 8 p.m., check local listings), his ''Turandot'' airs - the first of two ''Opera From Arena Di Verona'' specials (the second is ''Tosca,'' airing Sept. 15).

In New York recently to supervise the editing of ''Turandot,'' director Large discussed with me the problems of transposing opera to television.

He believes the biggest challenge he ever faced was bringing Wagner's ''Ring'' to television last year.

''The greatest problem was to come to the conclusion that it is basically a series of conversations. Although it is great epic stuff, it is also drama, conversation, reaction. I had to come to terms with the fact that the operas could be approachable by anyone who loves drama or music. There was nothing to be afraid of. It was just like a good crime story.''

Does he feel he succeeded?

''I would like to think we did. We had thousands of letters from people saying they loved it. Some people said they wanted to thank us for allowing them to experience the operas in their home, which they could never afford at the Metropolitan. That touched me. We actually got through the barriers and communicated.''

Mr. Large feels that television sound is appalling. ''It's very disheartening to work to get the best possible quality in recording in digital sound, then by the time it gets filtered down to a two-inch speaker, it is ridiculous. It'll never change until manufacturers come to their senses and realize that a $12 speaker is just not good enough.'' He agrees that simulcasts on FM radio help, and perhaps soon stereo TV sound equipment may also help. But ''it is time the TV consumer became a little more aggressive about demanding better sound.''

What's most difficult in bringing opera to TV?

''To be faithful to the composer, to the production, to the artists - and not get in the way of the audience. I have a particular disdain for directors who try to show how clever they are by imposing on audiences tricks, techniques, and idiosyncratic ideas that distract from the music, the vision, and get in the way of the opera itself. These directors rob an audience of the opportunity of coming closer, say, to Mozart.

''I never want to forget that there are always people somewhere experiencing the music for the first time. I don't want to spoil it for them. I want them to come as close as possible to the original genius of Mozart.''

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