In daytime or primetime, The Hollywood Squares was like a cheeky, cheery cocktail party.
With that warm greeting from host Peter Marshall, The Hollywood Squares debuted on NBC on October 17,1966. It would remain on the air for 38 years — in daytime and at night, on the network and in syndication — and stands today as an icon in the world of game shows.
Flanked by two contestants, Marshall (and his successors) would gaze up at mod vertical cubes housing nine very game stars — actors, singers, comedians — who had to answer trivia questions as the competitors discerned fact from fiction. Three correct cubes in a row, as in tic-tac-toe, was a win. But the real prize for viewers was the stars' often risque, unscripted banter.
Marshall (to Paul Lynde): Paul, true or false: there's now a travel agency that specializes in booking nude cruises to Europe.
Lynde: I'll bet I know how they pick the captain!
Marshall (to comic Cliff Arquette, as suspendered yokel Charley Weaver): Charlie, how many balls would you expect to find on a billiard table?
Weaver: How many guys are playing?
Marshall (to Lynde): Paul, according to Ann Landers, what are the two things you should never do in bed?
Lynde: Point and laugh.
"It was different," says Marshall, who turned 90 in March. "The questions were clever, the stars were having a good time, and their jokes were funny. It was the most fun job I ever had."
In Marshall's era (he hosted until 1981), a week's worth of shows was taped in a day. "I didn't rehearse, I just walked in and went over the questions," says the star who, before Squares, enjoyed success as a big-band singer, comedian and Broadway performer. "We'd do three shows, then take a set break with lunch or dinner and wine. People would get sloshed!"
The show seemed effortless, but it took some effort to get the party started.
Writer-producers Merrill Heatter and Bob Quigley were certain that a game show teeming with celebrities would be a smash, but their initial efforts (NBC's People Will Talk in 1963 and the Carl Reiner-hosted The Celebrity Game the next year for CBS) were not. Even so, Heatter remembers being fairly "obsessed" with his brainstorm of mixing famous faces with tic-tac-toe.
Hollywood Squares — with Heatter's novel three-story set — began on daytime, where it had a rough start.
"The pace was too slow," says Heatter, who's still pitching game shows at age 89. "I realized we needed more than 12 questions a show — we needed 22 to keep it moving. That made a hell of a difference."
In short order, stars were clamoring for a spot. "Everybody was asking me to get them on," Marshall recalls. "I bumped into Walter Matthau at La Scala. He said, 'Hey, Petey, I wanna be on your show.'"
The booking list kept growing: Shelley Winters, George C. Scott, Elizabeth Montgomery, Peter Falk, Ernest Borgnine, Sammy Davis, Jr., Burt Reynolds, The Monkees and Zsa Zsa Gabor, to name a few. But the reliable wit of the regulars kept the show rolling.
Marshall (to Weaver): Should you train your very young children on the piano?
Weaver: No, try newspapers.
Marshall: Paul, it is the most abused and neglected part of your body — what is it?
Lynde: Mine may be abused, but it certainly isn't neglected!
Thanks to their appearances, comics George Gobel, Wally Cox and Jan Murray became household names, while sitcom staples like Rose Marie and Abby Dalton represented the wry women's point of view. Other surprising Square fillers: Vincent Price (386 episodes), Glenn Ford (67) and Gypsy Rose Lee (86).
Meanwhile, Marshall, as the master of ceremonies, "was a natural," Heatter marvels. "His enjoyment of those stars was contagious." And sometimes the fun didn't stop when the cameras were turned off. Marshall recalls trips from the Burbank set to the nearby SmokeHouse restaurant with Robert Fuller (the Emergency! star was Marshall's favorite guest) and Burt Reynolds.
The genial vibe didn't lend itself to backstage drama. Even after snarky Paul Lynde (then costarring on Bewitched) settled into the show's center square — which took on an aura of prime property — other regulars didn't vie to usurp him. "We never had anyone competing to be in the center square," Heatter says.
After 15 seasons, NBC's love for The Hollywood Squares dissipated. The show had been moved to the evening in 1968, and was later syndicated. Despite relatively good ratings, the network version was canceled in 1981.
Of course, The Hollywood Squares would live again. John Davidson and Tom Bergeron would host successful incarnations, with Joan Rivers and Whoopi Goldberg in the respective center squares (Goldberg, a fan, executive-produced along with bada-binging). International versions have met with less success; the U.K.'s Celebrity Squares has enjoyed three iterations, the most recent hosted last year by comedian Warwick Davis.
As Heatter sees it, The Hollywood Squares — last produced in the U.S. in 2004 — is eternal. So is his passion. "I don't think there's been a single day since I've been in this business when I wasn't at some point thinking about [shaping] a game show. It's a compulsion with me." He's currently working on "a really great word game" with, of course, a celebrity component.
And Marshall, fittingly, still likes to entertain. He was thrilled when the Paley Center feted his 90th birthday in March. He's still performing and singing, and he hosts big-band music shows for PBS and syndicated radio.
He throws poker parties. And he likes to regale his family — four children, 12 grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren — with stories of Hollywood of yore and how he met his wife Laurie back in 1985. "It was on an airplane, when I was doing La Cage aux Folles."
Nothing square about that!