Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Bonus round stars: 9 celebrities who found their greatest fame on game shows

Illustration for article titled Bonus round stars: 9 celebrities who found their greatest fame on game shows

1. Nipsey Russell
“Professional game show panelist” is a tiny and eclectic subgenre of celebrity. The field is populated by second-tier comedians, TV character actors, and other Hollywood also-rans who were rescued from invisibility by virtue of the fact that they could play a game. Nobody embodies this niche of pop culture better than Nipsey Russell, a reasonably successful nightclub comedian who made his name guest-starring on a variety of game shows in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Russell was a regular on the lie-detection show To Tell The Truth and also popped up from time to time on another Goodson-Todman show, Match Game. And because his comic roots gave him a talent for wordplay, the producers of Pyramid frequently pulled Nipsey’s number from their Rolodex. At some point in any worthwhile Russell guest spot, the host would proclaim Russell the “poet laureate of television” and ask the comedian to recite a silly, borderline-naughty poem. He always had one at the ready. “The kids are saying, ‘Make love, not war,’” a typical Russell rhyme began, “and I’m beginning to think they’re right. For war costs millions of dollars a day, and love just a few bucks a night!”

2. Charles Nelson Reilly
Though the distinctive look of Match Game evolved with each new iteration of the fill-in-the-blanks show, there were a handful of onscreen constants: The geometric patterns of the set design, the garish color palette, and bespectacled Charles Nelson Reilly puffing away at a tobacco pipe in the upper-right seat on the panel. Reilly came to prominence on the Broadway stage in the ’60s, scoring a Tony for his performance in the original production of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. The Ghost And Mrs. Muir’s two-season run brought the actor to series television, but his droll wit and killer timing were a better fit for the cocktail-party atmosphere of late-night talk shows and celebrity-panel games. Often the supplier of Match Game’s sauciest innuendo (which was as close as Reilly could get to openly acknowledging his homosexuality on the air), he stuck with the show all the way through its early-’90s revival. If Hogan’s Heroes star and future Family Feud host Richard Dawson played Match Game to help the contestants win, Reilly played to keep the viewers at home entertained, playfully squabbling with fellow panelist Brett Somers and, in one memorable installment, allowing Gene Rayburn to temporarily relinquish his hosting duties.

3. Brett Somers
One of the other reserved spots on the Match Game panel was immediately to Reilly’s right: upper center, the throne from which Brett Somers, the smoky-voiced queen of the game, handed down matches and bon mots. The barbed give-and-take between Somers and Reilly inspired Goodson-Todman to build a small cast of Match Game regulars, and Somers would remain with the show until its daytime run ended in 1982. The actress was most familiar to viewers (if she was familiar to them at all) as the onscreen ex-wife of her real-life husband, Jack Klugman, on The Odd Couple. It was at Klugman’s suggestion that the Match Game producers first invited Somers to be on the show. A journeywoman actress with a theatrical background (like her sparring partner, Reilly), Somers’ most natural showbiz home was on the Match Game panel, a role that made her something akin to Dorothy Parker in a stylish wig and oversized sunglasses.


4. Jim J. Bullock
Though he’d appeared regularly on the ’80s sitcom Too Close For Comfort, Jim J. Bullock didn’t really come into his own as a semi-celebrity until he was picked to be a regular “square” on the John Davidson iteration of Hollywood Squares. (He was inexplicably billed as a de-voweled “Jm J. Bullock” on the show.) Bubbly and Hollywood handsome, Bullock provided the “is he or isn’t he” undertones to this version of Squares, a game show “character” made popular by predecessors like the original Squares’ Paul Lynde and Match Game’s Charles Nelson Reilly. The flamboyant actor even guest-hosted the show for Davidson on occasion, an experience that he drew on years later when he launched his own talk show with ex-televangelist and makeup aficionado Tammy Faye Messner.

5. Jaye P. Morgan
Casting a game show isn’t that different from any other casting job: try to find someone who fits the spirit of the show. Of course, game show producers are limited by the pool of talent who will show up for what isn’t exactly a high-prestige gig. But once in a while, they get someone like Jaye P. Morgan, a singer-actress whose outward elegance belied her love of the tawdry and inane—making her an ideal fit for The Gong Show. Chuck Barris’ anarchic game/variety show was a sensation in the ’70s because it let rank amateurs frolic on the vaunted stage of network television, a precedent to other countercultural TV acts like David Letterman. (In fact, Letterman was a celebrity judge on a few episodes of The Gong Show.) Morgan got the joke better than anyone, and she looked for any excuse to dispense with pretension and let her libertine side shine through. Most infamously, Morgan flashed her breasts on two occasions, which was over the line even for this shaggy program, forcing the production to edit awkward “OOPS!” cards into the live-to-tape footage.

6. The Unknown Comic
As a celebrity judge, Jaye P. Morgan was guaranteed plenty of camera time on The Gong Show, but some of the program’s stage acts also briefly made a name for themselves—and then there was the case of The Unknown Comic, who made a no-name for himself. Los Angeles comedian Murray Langston was at a low point before appearing on Gong. After spending years as a performer on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, Langston ran into money trouble when his comedy club went south. (“I specialized in ribs and later specialized in bankruptcy,” he told The A.V. Club in 2001.) Embarrassed to have fallen so low but eager for the union paycheck, Langston put a bag over his head, told a few terrible jokes, and deemed himself The Unknown Comic. The shtick stuck. Gong Show creator/host Chuck Barris loved Langston’s act so much that he brought The Unknown Comic back dozens of times, an honor bestowed only on the finest Gong performers, like Gene, Gene The Dancing Machine (a man who performed an insipid dance while people threw things at him).

7. Cliff Arquette/Charley Weaver
When Cliff Arquette brought his homespun Charley Weaver persona to The Hollywood Squares, it was the second unlikely revival of an entertainment career that stretched back to radio days. Despite retiring in the ’50s, a surprise Tonight Show shout-out from Jack Paar thrust Arquette and Weaver back into the spotlight—though in this second act, the actor and his frumpily dressed character from “Mount Idy” became one and the same. The Squares’ one-liner prompts didn’t afford enough space for Charley’s rambling, character-driven, malapropism-ridden “Letters From Mamma” bit, so Arquette’s creation was given a new fictional place of residence: a retirement home. The implication of advanced age and Arquette’s personal areas of expertise made Charley the go-to panelist for historical questions on Squares, and his bluffs and joke answers frequently drew details from “life at the home.” A 1973 stroke kept Arquette out of his lower-left square for a time, but he would return to the show prior to the lethal stroke he suffered in 1974. Forty years on, the extended epilogue to Arquette’s career continues apace: He’s the grandfather of actors Rosanna, Patricia, David, Alexis, and Richmond Arquette.


8. Fannie Flagg
Likely the only Oscar nominee who could make this this list, Fannie Flagg probably ought to be famous as the woman who overcame dyslexia to write the novel Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe, the basis for the 1991 film. And while Flagg is still writing books, she’s best known for her frequent appearances on the ’70s version of Match Game. Flagg would occupy the lower right spot on the show’s two-tiered panel, a seat reserved for women with offbeat sensibilities (or, in the parlance of host Gene Rayburn, “weirdos”). This last slot was actually the toughest position on the panel, as it was the implicit job of the last panelist to come up with a clever answer that could get a laugh after the other celebrities ran the obvious jokes into the ground. Flagg’s indifference to getting the “right” answer served her well in this role. Her puckishness, along with her sweater-and-bow tie style, made her one of the enduring minor characters of the ’70s game show world.

9. Shelley Smith
Shelley Smith’s IMDB page depicts a decade—the ’80s—spent toiling in minor parts on one TV drama after another. A little Hart To Hart here, a little Webster there. Smith may never have gained a toehold in prime time, but she had one rare talent that made her a fixture on TV for years: She was really good at Pyramid. Not only did Smith possess a formidably agile mind for the English language, she also carried herself with a preternatural calm that put contestants at ease. The importance of such grace can’t be underestimated on a show so tense that William Shatner once threw a chair across the set after a tough loss. Smith stopped acting in the ’90s—she now oversees an egg donor program that she founded in 1991—and she would be all but vanished from the public eye if it weren’t for the Pyramid reruns that still air on GSN, showing the star at the top of her game.

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