When ABC revives To Tell the Truth on June 14 with new host Anthony Anderson, it will earn a place in history as one of only two TV game shows to air first-run episodes in seven consecutive decades. Join us for a trip back through time to the days when female game show panelists wore evening gowns and cartons of cigarettes were given away as consolation prizes.
1. PRODUCERS DIDN’T WANT TO MAKE A DEAL WITH MONTY HALL TO HOST.
Bob Stewart had been creating and producing game shows for radio for several years and was looking to make a transition to television in 1955 when he happened to bump into Monty Hall. The future Let’s Make a Deal host had only recently arrived in the U.S. from his native Canada and had landed a temporary hosting gig filling in for an ailing Gene Rayburn on an NBC children’s game show called The Sky’s the Limit.
Hall told Stewart that he was friends with producer Mark Goodson’s attorney, and that he could arrange a meeting with him if Stewart had any ideas for game shows that Hall could host. Stewart pitched two shows to the attorney, but when a follow-up meeting was scheduled it was requested that Stewart attend solo. Goodson liked his ideas, but not with Hall attached.
2. THE SHOW UNDERWENT A FEW NAME CHANGES BEFORE IT WAS SOLD.
One of the two shows that Stewart had pitched was called Three of a Kind (the other show, by the way, was the game that eventually became The Price Is Right); it involved three contestants who all claimed to be the same person. It was up to a panel of four celebrities to ask a series of questions and determine the genuine contestant from the imposters.
By the time a pilot episode was made, the name of the show had changed to Nothing but the Truth. Mike Wallace hosted the premiere episode, but when the game was picked up as a series, the name had changed again—to To Tell the Truth—and Wallace had departed as host in order to pursue a career in news broadcasting instead.
3. CATCHPHRASES WERE PART OF THE SHOW’S SUCCESS.
Merv Griffin filled in for To Tell the Truth host Bud Collyer on many occasions during the 1960s, but even at that young age he knew he wanted to do more in television that just work in front of the camera. Griffin adopted Mark Goodson as his mentor and carefully studied all of Goodson-Todman’s most successful shows to see what worked and what didn’t. One thing Goodson emphasized was regularly using precise verbiage during portions of a show, like when explaining the rules. A phrase that caught on as part of the lingo was even better, such as To Tell the Truth’s “Will the real John Doe, please stand up?” Griffin discovered that such repetition provided continuity and comfort to the audience. He employed those tactics years later when he created his own hit game shows.
4. THE “CELEBRITY” PANELISTS WEREN’T ALWAYS CELEBRITIES.
Even during To Tell the Truth’s original run, viewers sometimes wondered exactly what some of the celebrity panelists’ claims to fame were. While To Tell the Truth’s celebrities didn’t have quite the New York café society vibe that surrounded the What’s My Line? panel, most of them were more or less known for their work on Broadway or the Metropolitan Opera since the show was taped in Manhattan. So while East Coast theater buffs might have known that Peggy Cass won a Tony Award for her work in Auntie Mame, folks in Peoria, Illinois would probably only remember Kitty Carlisle from her appearance in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera and be unaware of her 20-year tenure on New York State’s Council of the Arts.
5. THE IMPOSTERS WERE FOUND IN THE WANT ADS.
The producers did run ads in some of the local New York newspapers, since they often needed “types” to fill the imposter roles, including beefy men who could pass for professional wrestlers or attractive women who looked like models but were really rodeo champions. What they didn’t want were professional (or aspiring) actors, believing that to be a convincing imposter, you had to be an Average Joe with no acting experience.
A team of production assistants often spent their afternoons wandering the streets near the studio plucking folks out of lines at bus stops, Broadway ticket booths, and waiting for tables at restaurants as possible fakes. An out-of-own accent was a definite plus, since many of the “real” contestants were from distant parts of the country. The producers interviewed an average of 80 hopefuls each week to fulfill their requirement of 20 imposters.
6. SOME OF THE IMPOSTERS WENT ON TO BECOME FAMOUS IN THEIR OWN RIGHT.
A young Cicely Tyson posed as folk singer Shirley Abicair in 1963, and future supermodel Lauren Hutton pretended to be Lulu Porter, the winner of the Polish International Song Festival. And then there was Anderson Cooper, who was just nine years old when he pretended to be Wally Norton, the world’s youngest professional bear trainer.
7. SOME CONTESTANTS BECAME FAMOUS A SECOND TIME.
Singer Bob McGrath appeared as a contestant on To Tell the Truth in 1966 by virtue of both his fame as a featured tenor on the TV show Sing Along with Mitch and as a successful recording artist in Japan (he’d released several albums of traditional Irish folks songs recorded in Japanese). Three years later, McGrath signed on to star in a new PBS series called Sesame Street, which would keep him busy for the following 40-plus years.
8. THE “WORLD’S GREATEST IMPOSTER” FOOLED THE PANEL.
Frank Abagnale Jr., the subject of Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, made an appearance in 1977 and managed to stump the panel. The 2002 film used pieces of the original game show when reenacting that portion of Abagnale’s story.
9. A PRESIDENT ONCE SERVED ON THE PANEL.
Ronald Reagan sat on the To Tell the Truth panel in 1958—nine years before he was elected Governor of California, and 22 years before he defeated Jimmy Carter to become President of the United States.
10. THE BIRTH OF ALEX TREBEK'S FIRST CHILD FORCED MARK GOODSON TO FILL IN AS HOST.
As time went on, To Tell the Truth went through several hosts: Bud Collyer’s health issues forced him to retire in 1968, and he was replaced by Garry Moore. Moore was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1976 and eventually Joe Garagiola took over hosting duties in 1977.
In later years, the show moved from New York to Los Angeles and several emcees came and went, including Robin Ward, Richard Kline, Gordon Elliott, and Lynn Swann. When Swann departed in 1991 due to scheduling conflicts with his ABC Sports commitments, Alex Trebek was hired as the new full-time host. One day, just shortly after he began taping, Trebek received word that his wife had gone into labor with their first child. He explained the situation to Mark Goodson then dashed off to the hospital, leaving Goodson to step in as a last-minute host for two episodes.
Merv, an Autobiography, by Merv Griffin