1. Mel Harris
In 1979 future thirtysomething star Mary Ellen Harris (her real name, as we found out) competed on the $20,000 Pyramid. She gave her occupation as a “professional dog trainer,” a resume bullet point that seems to be missing from all her official biographies. Mel was a fierce competitor, but she missed the big money payoff by that much (picture my thumb and index finger almost meeting).
2. Dr. Joyce Brothers
Pop psychologist Joyce Brothers would eventually become a regular on the talk show circuit, but in 1955 she was a newly minted PhD and a stay-at-home-mom trying to make ends meet on the $50 per month her husband received for his medical residency. Intelligent and attractive, she decided that a game show might be a quick fix to her family’s financial dilemma.
The folks at The $64,000 Question found her camera-friendly and affable enough, but she needed to choose an appropriately “inappropriate” category (the show’s “hook” was strange juxtapositions, as in the Marine drill sergeant who was an expert on opera) in which to compete in order to secure a slot on the show. She chose boxing (her husband was a fan) and then proceeded to cram like a graduate student on steroids. Given six weeks to prepare, she went to the publisher of Ring magazine and picked up every issue they’d ever printed. Then her husband approached the producer of the Great Fights of the Century films and was allowed to borrow the reels. Her dogged determination paid off, for not only did she win the top prize, her appearance on the show led to interest from other TV hosts and soon her face was a fixture on the small screen.
3. John Ritter
He was just a college student majoring in drama when he appeared as Bachelor Number Three on The Dating Game back in 1967, but watch this clip and see if “Jack Tripper” wasn’t already in the making.
4. Naomi Judd
In 1972 Diana Ciminella was a recently divorced single mom working at a health food restaurant on the Sunset Strip trying to support her two daughters, Christina and Ashley. Homesick for her family back in Ashland, Kentucky, she decided to exploit her perky personality and proximity to the major TV studios and auditioned for several game shows in order to earn airfare back home. She became a champion contestant on Hollywood Squares, but was eliminated on her third day of Password competition thanks to celebrity teammate Peter Lawford’s indulgence of pre-show cocktails. Diana did earn enough scratch to get back home, where several years later she and daughter Christina would, as Naomi and Wynonna Judd, have a bit of success in the country music field.
5. Kirstie Alley
When Kirstie Alley appeared on both Match Game and Password Plus in 1979, she gave her occupation as “interior designer.” That was a bit of a stretch, seeing as the last design firm she’d worked for was back in her hometown of Wichita, Kansas, and even then she’d had no credentials or experience and often wondered why the owner of Dean’s Designs not only hired her but had kept her on board after many serious screw-ups.
6. Heather Graham
Sixteen-year-old Heather described herself as an “aspiring actress” when she appeared as a contestant during a 1986 special Teen Week of Scrabble. The blonde, blue-eyed ingénue had already appeared in a few TV commercials, but her onscreen bantering with Chuck Woolery caught the attention of casting directors and she landed a part in a two-episode story arc on Growing Pains the following year.
7. Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman)
Even though he’s appearing as part of a duo called “Betty and Eddie,” listen carefully and you can hear Chuck Barris say “Thanks, Paul” as the pair leaves the stage of The Gong Show. (“Betty” was Charlotte McGinnis, Reubens’ Groundlings comedy partner at the time. Sadly, she passed away in 2006.)
8. Vanna White
Future letter-turner White’s first public game show exposure came in June 1980 when her name was called to join Contestant’s Row on The Price Is Right. Vanna never made it onstage, but her T-shirt caught the attention of TPIR staffers nonetheless.
9. Kellie Martin
Despite the title, Card Sharks wasn’t really about poker or blackjack; the only “gambling” involved was guessing whether the next card revealed would be higher or lower than the previous one. During a special Youth Week competition future Life Goes On star (and Lifetime Original Movie staple) Kellie Martin won $2,400 in the Money Cards bonus game. Only 11 years old at the time, her dream was to be a director when she grew up.
10. Phyllis Diller
You Bet Your Life was a game show in name only; it was really just an excuse for host Groucho Marx to exchange quips with his guests for 30 minutes. As a result, the contestant coordinators tried to get a mix of average Americans who people-next-door yet not quite run-off-the mill. Thus a housewife from Lima, Ohio, with aspirations for a career in comedy landed her first national TV spot.
Today is October 10, 2010—10.10.10! To celebrate, we've got all our writers working on 10 lists, which we'll be posting throughout the day and night. To see all the lists we've published so far, click here.