Each year has its own fascinations, which is fortunate for Barbara Walters.
The television journalism icon — seen most weekdays as a host (and executive producer) of ABC’s “The View” — has been naming 10 notables to an annual list since 1993, and the time has come to continue that tradition. A 90-minute special for ABC this time, “Barbara Walters Presents the 10 Most Fascinating People of 2012” airs Wednesday, Dec. 12.
The range of those selected and interviewed by Walters is evident from the names available at this writing: actor-filmmaker Ben Affleck, whose drama “Argo” has earned countless raves; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Olympic-medalist gymnast Gabby Douglas; “Fifty Shades of Grey” author E L James; “Family Guy” mentor and soon-to-be Oscar host Seth MacFarlane; young reality-show star Alana Thompson, a.k.a. “Honey Boo Boo“; and, collectively forming one of Walters’ picks, the five members of the boy band One Direction.
As usual, Fascinating Person No. 1 for the year isn’t slated to be revealed until the end of the actual broadcast. If the trail is interesting for viewers to follow, it certainly has been for Walters this year, too.
“I don’t know of a special that’s been done every single year for this long,” she tells Zap2it. “We kind of start the previous December thinking about who we’re going to want. And then, certain things happen. If you look at the Olympics, you know you have to include Gabby Douglas, and we made that decision last summer.
“When ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ came out, I thought, ‘I cannot read this.’ And not only did I read that, I read all three [books in the series]. And I liked them. And then I met E L James, and she was not at all what I expected. She’s kind of middle-aged and very pleasant-looking, and she never thought she would have this kind of success. ‘Fifty Shades’ is to adults what ‘Harry Potter’ is to kids.”
Seeing “Argo,” the true story of the CIA’s rescue of several Americans from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis, convinced Walters to pursue its driving force. “Here was a very different Ben Affleck, who’s now a producer and director and an actor. His whole life has changed, so I went to California and did an interview with him.
“And I’m very bad on music. I would have done Taylor Swift or Adele, but other people said, ‘That’s last year.’ And I said, ‘Well, who’s this year?’ And they said, ‘It’s a group of five good-looking guys out of England called One Direction.’ I said, ‘I’ve never heard of them.’ And they said, ‘That’s because you’re not 14 years old.’ They’re kind of this year’s Beatles.”
While ABC is the longtime television home of the Academy Awards — also demonstrated by the Oscar-night specials Walters did for just under 30 years — she maintains that
MacFarlane’s upcoming hosting role for the event isn’t necessarily why she chose him.
“I had to take a crash course in ‘Family Guy,’ ” she allows, “and he is adorable. He writes, he does voices, he sings, he played the piano for me … he’s a one-man band.”
Virtually any “10 Most” or “10 Best” list sets up its creator to hear from people whose own favorites are omitted, and Walters confirms she isn’t immune to that.
“We also get people offering their clients for it, and I always say, ‘Oh! We did 10, and they were the 11th.’ One thing that happened was that the network asked us to do 90 minutes instead of 60 minutes, and we thought, ‘Do we do the 12 Most Fascinating People now? The 15 Most Fascinating People?’
“We decided we’d keep it to 10,” Walters adds, “but the interviews would be less brief. They would be a little plumper, and maybe a little more satisfying, because we could spend more time with each person.”
Still, the ground rules have remained the same. “The thing about ‘The 10 Most Fascinating People’ is that everybody wants to be on,” Walters reflects. “And it’s upbeat. We do not do murderers; we do not do embezzlers. That does not mean that you can’t be edgy, that you can’t write ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ but it does mean that it’s going to be positive. Rarely does someone say, ‘I don’t want to do it.’ “
However, there has to be a solid reason for them to, and for Walters as well.
“For example,” she says, “if Ben Affleck had made just another movie … but ‘Argo’ has been such a success for him, and it’s so interesting that his career has been way down and way up. It’s a good story for us to do.”
The much-honored Walters has become a story herself sometimes in 2012. She pledged $250,000 to help victims of Hurricane Sandy during Disney/ABC’s “Day of Giving” last month, and in October on “The View,” she appealed to longtime friend Donald Trump to stop “making a fool of yourself” after he offered to give $5 million to charity if President Barack Obama would release his college and passport applications.
“We had said to him, ‘Why don’t you make this big announcement with us [on “The View”]?’ ” Walters recalls of the buildup Trump engineered. “We really thought it was going to be something huge, and of course, it was the same old thing. I said in the beginning, though, how much I respect him and how fond I am of him. Donald and I have been friends for 25 years. He’s wonderful.”