Recently I engaged in an online debate with a fellow game show geek who insisted on referencing the anniversary of the birth of a now deceased celebrity as a birthday. My argument, admittedly snarky, referenced the fact that the person whose date of birth was being honored was no longer able to have a presence at any celebration.
In the case of Bill Cullen, I’d offer an exception should be made.
William Lawrence Cullen was born 102 years ago today in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From modest means, and after contracting polio at age 4 which left him with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life, he rose to prominence as a emcee and broadcaster unparalleled by few in media history. Over the course of nearly half a century spanning six different decades, Bill Cullen was the host of more than 20 different nationally broadcast game shows, hosted several other talk and sports shows, and was a regular panelist on many more. At the peak of his career in the early 1960s, he simultaneously hosted a top 15 prime time and daytime show, the original PRICE IS RIGHT, was a regular panelist on another top rated orimetime show, I’VE GOT A SECRET, and was a top-rated morning radio personality on the NBC flagship WRCA New York. And he did most of that LIVE.
Think of that in this context. Perhaps the only current personality with as much of a sphere of influence is Steve Harvey. Most of Steve’s prime time television work reflects short order series taped over a handful of days. An entire season of the syndicated FAMILY FEUD is shot over a couple of months. He rarely guests on other shows and in recent years his morning radio show has been produced at his home. Bill Cullen worked the equivalent of two full time weekday jobs before noon, a weekend gig and did countless other projects in the afternoons and evenings while becoming an expert in how to hail taxis in midtown Manhattan, a Herculean feat for anyone let alone someone trying to navigate crosstown traffic. When he took a vacation, he earned it.
Bill was also at the helm of more than a dozen pilots, appropriate for someone who was an accomplished flyer. Bill was effectively the Jim Burrows of game shows. If a producer wanted instant credibility with a buyer, what better way to do so than by hiring who was perceived to be the best of them all to helm it? Many of them did sell, and many of those were for a producer named Bob Stewart. Stewart was the line producer of PRICE IS RIGHT and Bill was ultimately his ticket to starting his own company. The first daytime project Stewart sold on his own shingle was a comedy memory game called EYE GUESS. It successfully ran in the lunchtime hour as a companion for the original JEOPARDY! at the end of the 60s. Both attracted a large, loyal audience of prominent celebrities.
One was Mel Brooks, who loved the show so much he appeared as a guest contestant on a special celebrity week. Decades after his appearance, Mel wrote an article for Vanity Fair describing what he considered to be his most embarrassing moment of his career.
Bill’s limp was pronounced; he wobbled when he walked aggressively. He never was deterred by it, but producers, particularly Stewart, staged their shows in ways where Bill rarely moved on camera. Shows would often open with Bill seated on a raised chair behind a tall podium, when he would have to walk during a taping set pieces often masked his moves . Brooks had no idea Bill’s handicap was so significant. After a spirited game where Mel’s joking and game playing was particularly strong, when the cameras went dark Bill enthusiastically crossed stage to thank Brooks for such a great performance, Brooks believed Bill was trying physical comedy himself and began to mimic him. They both wobbled toward each other like seals in heat. The female celebrity, a more regular game show personality of the era who knew of Bill’s limitations, was horrified and yelled “Mel, stop!!! The poor man is crippled!!!”. Bill and Mel laughed uproariously. He had upstaged a comic genius just be being himself.
Many experts believed Bill’s success was due to that quality of being himself and being able to get the most of his fellow performers. He was almost always referenced as the “host’, not the “star” of his shows. His ability to laugh at his handicap and not let it deter him allowed him to have empathy for contestants whose lives were frequently being changed on his shows, with celebrity, thousands of dollars in winning, or both. Bill could inject logic into a complicated format and milk tense moments with theatrical dramatics. He didn’t need intense music and lights to milk a moment. When Regis Philbin hit his personal jackpot with WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE his success was in tandem with the show’s massive prize and high intensity staging. Bill could get an audience to explode in applause with a dramatic pause before he revealed whose bid on a Rambler was closest to the actual retail price on a cold stage with a single sterile flat.
Bill’s career was long, his influence has lasted far longer. Since Mark Goodson was prescient in saving kinescopes hundreds of his earlier Price Is Right and I’ve Got A Secret episodes exist and are rerun regularly on two networks. His early 80s show BLOCKBUSTERS earned him an Emmy nomination in his sixties, as did a later series, HOT POTATO. He hosted a show called CHILD’S PLAY where despite not having kids of his own he traded quips with school age kids who lovingly referred to him as Uncle Bill. Among the aspiring child actors he shared a stage with was a young Tara Reid. He did what a shark couldn’t—make her funny.
Because he was based in New York, during my high school years many of the tapings me, BFF and our buds would see often involved him. Because of his limp, he was relatively easy to recognize and try and chase down for autographs. Neither BFF nor I were particularly in shape. Initially, he was gracious. Then he caught on. He may not have been able to outrun us but he did outsmart us. Since he had decades of experience wending his way through crowds into strategically waiting cabs, we were no match for his moves. We had a bunch of autographed tickets, but not as many as we would have hoped.
Bill has been gone more than 31 years, lung cancer taking him far too soon at 70. But his prominence has endured well beyond that. Philbin quipped that he had to beat Bill out for the MILLIONAIRE host gig ten years after his death. Brooks told that Vanity Fair story about EYE GUESS in the 2010s. Anyone with a You Tube account today can see hundreds of his episodes with a couple of swipes. It’s pretty evident to even the most jaded casual observer that he was a brilliant quick-witted relatable man. One only wonders what he would have done with Tik Tok.
So while Leblanguage would contend that a dead man can’t celebrate a birthday, his omnipresence and generations of fans born well after his career and life ended confirms he will be celebrated and, at least via his body of work, able to be a presence at those celebrations. So go ahead, internet buds. It’s ok to say Happy Birthday, Uncle Bill. Keep on running.
Until next time…