In the early 1970s, Bob Stewart—creator of such game shows as The Price is Right and Password—approached producer Mark Goodson with yet another scathingly brilliant idea: a word-play guessing game called Cash on the Line. Goodson liked the idea, but he refused Stewart’s one demand—that “Stewart” be added to the Goodson-Todman production company name. Stewart formed his own production company instead and in 1973 launched the show that was now called The $10,000 Pyramid.
The show would go on to win nine Emmy Awards (second only to Jeopardy!) and endure several title changes (due to inflation) and many different hosts (including Donny Osmond). But for our purposes, we are looking back at the definitive Pyramids, the only ones that matter—the Dick Clark/Bill Cullen-hosted versions. Play along with us!
1. ROB REINER WAS THE FIRST CELEBRITY TO WIN $10,000 FOR HIS PARTNER.
June Lockhart and Rob Reiner were the celebrity contestants for Pyramid’s 1973 premiere week. The clip above is bad quality due to the home VCR technology of that era, but several growing pains are still visible. The judges weren’t as quick on the cuckoo and were much more lenient when it came to unacceptable clues, and hand gestures hadn’t yet been forbidden in the Winner’s Circle. And take a look at that big money board—there was originally a bottom row of categories that had been hastily covered up with a piece of plywood. The original game had 10 categories in the final round, but two days before taping Bob Stewart realized no one could go through that many in just 60 seconds, so the bottom four squares were covered up to make a total of six categories necessary for the win.
2. THE NETWORK PRESIDENT WAS CONCERNED THE SHOW WAS RIGGED.
Fred Silverman was the president of CBS at the time and watched the first few tapings of The $10,000 Pyramid in his office via closed circuit TV. When not one but two contestants won $10,000 during what would be the show’s first week, he suspected that the game was rigged and came close to canceling it on the spot. He did some checking on his own with the production staff and decided that everything was kosher. Unbeknownst to Silverman, later that week, Rob Reiner predicted to Dick Clark that the game wouldn’t last more than 13 weeks—because it was too easy.
3. A LOT OF STRUGGLING ACTORS TRIED OUT TO BECOME CONTESTANTS—EVEN THOUGH THE PRODUCERS DIDN’T WANT THEM.
The $10,000 Pyramid was filmed in New York, which made it an ideal opportunity for struggling actors to win some money to support themselves between jobs. In 1981, contestant coordinator Edythe Chan told The Washington Post that she kept a careful watch on the applicants to make sure that there was a balance and they weren’t top-heavy with wannabe professionals, but it was apparently a poorly kept secret that there was a veritable underground of actors who gathered and practiced with one another prior to auditioning for the show. Previous contestants even conducted tutoring sessions for their fellow actors and coached them on how to give a good audition. One such actor was David Graf, who won $10,000 in 1979 (approximately $34,000 in today’s dollars). Graf eventually got his big break in the Police Academy films, among other roles. He even returned to the Pyramid in 1985, but this time as one of the celebrity contestants.
4. WILLIAM SHATNER LOST CONTROL OF HIS EMOTIONS.
In September of 1977, William Shatner hiked up his trousers and confidently strutted to the Winner’s Circle after besting his former Star Trek co-star Leonard Nimoy. All looked very promising until he reached the top box and a slip of the tongue got him buzzed, costing his partner $20,000. The category was “Things That Are Blessed” and instead of saying “The Virgin Mary” he inadvertently started his clue with “The Blessed ...” His reaction to the gaffe is a lesson in bad sportsmanship.
5. BILLY CRYSTAL HOLDS A PYRAMID RECORD.
Soap star Billy Crystal holds the record for the shortest time to get to the top of the pyramid, which he did in an amazing 26 seconds in November of 1977. Dallas actor Barry Jenner missed tying Crystal’s record by one second in 1987, when he won $100,000 for his partner in 27 seconds.
Dick Clark’s personal favorite celebrity contestants besides Crystal were Tony Randall, Soupy Sales, and Patty Duke Astin.
6. TOM POSTON’S PYRAMID RECORD WAS NOT QUITE AS STELLAR.
For every Billy Crystal there’s a Tom Poston. The Newhart actor set a less illustrious record in 1986 when he was on the receiving end in the Winner’s Circle and was unable to answer a single category, for a total of $0.
7. THEY ADDED WRIST RESTRAINTS TO MAKE SURE NO ONE BROKE THE “NO HAND GESTURES” RULE.
One of the rules for the Big Pyramid rounds was that the clue-giver was not allowed to use his or her hands or any type of body language to coach their partner. (The judges were pretty strict about this; Adrienne Barbeau was disqualified for fluttering her eyelashes while trying to get the contestant to guess “Things That Flicker.”) In 1974, wrist restraints were added to the clue-giver’s chair for added protection against gesturing.
8. DICK CLARK ONCE GOT A TASTE OF HIS OWN MEDICINE.
Dick Clark had a habit of walking over to the Winner’s Circle and somewhat smugly suggesting clues a contestant could’ve/should’ve used after they’d just lost the big money round. Easy for him to do; the clock wasn’t counting down and he wasn’t relying on that prize money to pay his mortgage. In fact, when he finally did sit in a contestant chair with $25,000 at stake for his partner, he admitted that thinking of “obvious” clues was easier from the other side of the podium.
9. THE SHOW’S CREATOR WAS ALSO A PRETTY FAIR PLAYER.
One evening in 2012, composer Ben Lanzarone and his actress wife Ilene Graff had a small gathering of their show business pals at their home for an informal game night, which featured Pyramid. Bob Stewart was among the guests and, at age 91, more than held his own in the competition.
10. THAT TOP BOX CATEGORY WAS DESIGNED TO BE DIFFICULT.
The top square of the pyramid in the Winner’s Circle was referred to as “The Money-Saving Clue” by Pyramid staffers. It was intentionally more vague and esoteric than the previous clues so that the contestants had to really think for that money. On the final episode of The $20,000 Pyramid, Clark jokingly revealed a pyramid filled with “Clues That Could Have Saved Us Money”:
- Used Car Dealers You Can Trust
- Hit Shows on NBC-TV (NBC had long been a distant third place in ratings at that time)
- Oil Companies in Bankruptcy
- Famous Japanese Rabbis
- Things Kissinger Did Not Foul Up
- Famous Italian TV Directors (an in-joke referring to Pyramid director Mike Gargiulo).