Walters says special goodbye to '20/20'

— Mind you, Barbara Walters isn't retiring.

But she's about to do something almost as notable: Relinquish her role as co-host of "20/20" after a quarter-century with that ABC newsmagazine. Walters, who has interviewed almost every big shot worth interviewing and whose own celebrity matches many of her subjects, is ready to retreat from the spotlight -- a little.

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AP Photo

Barbara Walters rides with President Reagan in a jeep rigged with television equipment on Reagan's Santa Barbara, Calif., ranch during a November 1981 interview. As she steps down as co-anchor of ABC's "20/20" after 25 years, Walters takes a look back over her career in a special two-hour "20/20," airing at 8 p.m. Friday.

But first: At 8 p.m. Friday, Walters will preside over a two-hour retrospective of many of the 740 interviews (but who's counting?) she has done for "20/20."

Then on Sept. 24, she will air one more: a conversation with Mary Kay Letourneau, the former sixth-grade schoolteacher who went to prison for having sex with a student.

After that, she plans to spend a whole week with her daughter, Jackie, at a spa in Southern California.

"I don't know when I've gotten away for a week," she says, "without getting called on something."

Time to take the phone off the hook!

"I know that everybody said, 'She'll never stop working. They'll carry her out feet first,"' says Walters, looking relaxed and stylish in a mint pantsuit at her desk a few days ago. "But I wanted to get out of the week-in-week-out grind. And I wanted to leave at the top. I didn't want to leave and have people say, 'Is she still there?"'

Walters, who marks her 73rd birthday next week, has been reliably there on the nation's TV screens since the 1960s, as the first female co-host of NBC's "Today."

She became a "20/20" fixture in 1979, joining forces with its then-host Hugh Downs after the disastrous experiment that had brought her to ABC three years before: co-anchoring the evening newscast with Harry Reasoner, who quickly made it clear he wanted no one alongside him, especially a woman.

"Very difficult, very painful," Walters calls that misadventure. But at "20/20" she flourished, and, in 1984, became its co-host.

Now replacing her next to John Stossel will be Elizabeth Vargas.

"But I'm not retiring," Walters says. "I'll be doing specials that I can pick and choose. We're already working on 'The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2004,' for December. I'll continue to do 'The View' (the morning chat and interview hour she started in 1997 whose panel of women she joins a couple of days each week). I might even do an interview for '20/20' from time to time.

"But in terms of anchoring '20/20,' I'm done," she declares.

It's an apt occasion, then, for revisiting Walters' past with a special like "25 on 20/20," whose breadth is reflected by its organizational breakdown: Presidents and first ladies; other world leaders; figures from Sept. 11; killers, scandalmongers and scoundrels; celebrities.

A final section -- human interest -- not only draws on Walters' inspiring sessions with Christopher Reeve (paralyzed from the neck down after a 1995 horseback-riding accident), but also the subject Walters decrees her most memorable: Bob Smithdas, a teacher and poet with a master's degree who has been deaf and blind since he was 4. In 1998, Walters profiled him and his wife, Michelle, who's also deaf and blind.

There are excerpts from interviews with Richard Nixon, Michael Jackson, Erik and Lyle Menendez, Margaret Thatcher, Moammar Gadhafi, Monica Lewinsky, Bing Crosby, Robin Givens and Mike Tyson, Elton John, Ronald Reagan -- and dozens more.

You almost certainly saw some of them when they first aired. But packaged in this greatest-hits collection, they have a heightened impact. "25 on 20/20" is a time capsule packed with a generation's worth of personalities, each certified by the ritual of sitting down with Barbara.

"What a life I've had!" says Walters, herself a bit surprised to take stock. "I never expected this! I always thought I'd be a writer for television. I never even thought I'd be in front of a camera."

The special takes note of Walters' stature as a pop culture phenomenon, with clips of several memorable impersonations of her, including Gilda Radner's classic Baba Wawa.

Walters also corrects the record -- or tries to -- concerning her "What kind of tree would you be?" question, an indelible part of any Barbara Walters spoof. She insists it was asked just once, long ago, in direct response to Katharine Hepburn's likening herself to a tree. The obvious follow-up: What kind of tree?

Now she's fielding certain questions from others.

"People have been asking me what will I do when that big interview comes up and it's not mine. Yeah, there'll be a second when I tell myself, I would love to have done that." But she looks untroubled. "I hope to have other compensations," she says.

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