Here is one man’s wouldn’t-it-be-great-if fantasy:
A highly decorated Marine officer is secretly shredding Iranscam documents in his office late one night when he hears a noise and freezes. Suddenly, in bursts a TV crew led by a familiar-looking man carrying a leather-bound photo album.
“Lt. Col. Oliver North,” the smallish man announces to the horrified officer, “this . . . is . . . your . . . life!”
It would never happen.
That old sentimentalist Ralph Edwards won’t reveal the two subjects of his new hourlong “This Is Your Life” special airing at 10 p.m. Sunday on NBC (Channels 4, 36 and 39). But rule out Ollie North. Scratch G. Gordon Liddy, too, although he passed the mustard for a recent gig on “Password.” And don’t tune in expecting Imelda Marcos.
That’s because Edwards, since the onset of “This Is Your Life” more than four decades ago, has been in the business of bona fide, unimpeachable, squeaky-clean heroes and heroines, champions who inspire and choke up America.
A few tears never hurt the ratings or the image.
“When you end up being on ‘This Is Your Life,’ you can run for office,” Edwards boasted the other day in his spacious 10th-floor headquarters overlooking Hollywood. He was sitting at a large, L-shaped desk, beautifully tailored and still youngish-looking despite being only a month away from his 74th birthday. The top of the desk was highly polished and uncluttered, the mark of an orderly man.
“I’m not going to do anything that hurts my kids or my country or is against the basic theme of good living,” he said about his marathon career producing such standards as “This Is Your Life” and “Truth or Consequences,” and now also “The People’s Court” and “Superior Court” with Stu Billet. “The main thing is entertainment, but not at the cost of putting a bunch of slosh up there.”
So lights, cameras, hankies.
Is someone kidding here? ABC is airing “Max Headroom,” a series that defines humans as computer images. Dr. Ruth is giggling on TV about sex. Geraldo Rivera is doing live drug busts. And now comes NBC, digging deep into its grab bag of musty golden oldies for “This Is Your Life”?
Not all that musty, actually. Institutions die hard, especially those that are among the most bankable formulas in broadcasting and part of a wave of revival shows that viewers seem to love.
What’s more, “This Is Your Life” is one of America’s common denominators, one of those rare adaptable shows that threads the history of TV.
Edwards introduced it in 1946 as part of his “Truth or Consequences” radio show. It moved to TV in 1952, running on NBC for nine years with Edwards as host. It spent two years in syndication in the early 1970s, hosted by David Frost. Another 27 shows, with Joe Campanella as host, were syndicated in 1983-84.
Through 505 episodes, the format has rarely varied.
Unsuspecting subject is surprised (on Sunday it again will be by Edwards) and told right there in front of the camera that “This is your life.” Astonished subject replies: “Me?” Then come the voices from offstage, as the subject is confronted by everyone he or she has ever known. Anecdotes flow and, with any luck, so do tears.
Many years ago on “Your Show of Shows,” Sid Caesar provided the hilarious, perfect parody as a disbelieving “This Is Your Life” subject is dragged on stage by the host (Carl Reiner) and then greeted-- attacked --by his blubbering old Uncle Goofy (Howard Morris). Edwards said he loved it.
Actual “This Is Your Life” subjects occasionally are almost as funny.
There was “Hee Haw” star Junior Samples in his familiar coveralls, for example, so overcome that he bawled from start to finish. “And after the show,” Edwards recalled, “he went out to the parking lot, where his wife and kids were standing beside the station wagon they had driven all the way to California, and he started crying there too.”
Running through a list of “This Is Your Life” subjects, you see many unfamiliar names. (Some of Edwards’ favorite shows honored relative unknowns who had done good deeds.) And you also see a virtual Who’s Who, from Bette Davis to Casey Stengel. “His wife had bought a new little fur to wear on the show,” Edwards remembers, “and he kept asking her on camera, ‘Where’d you get it? Where’d you get it?’ ”
The series got its subjects from human-interest stories in newspapers and the Reader’s Digest. “We also had people who wrote in about their aunt or uncle, and then sometimes we’d just sit around and do some brain busting,” Edwards said.
Each potential subject would be checked out for authenticity and personality. “They had to be people who would react,” he said, “so one of the first things we did was to ask people who knew them if they had home movies.”
The standard procedure was to devise a ruse that would guarantee the surprise element so critical to the show. Edwards either would drop in on subjects or lure them to the studio by trickery. “Gloria Swanson is the only one who ever found out ahead of time,” Edwards said. “She called me the night before.” She got her “life” anyway, but Edwards had to tell the audience that she knew about it, “and so the electricity was gone.”
Careful preparation didn’t preclude the occasional disaster. Once in the days of live TV, Edwards had to do a show without the subject because she was caught in a traffic jam. “We announced that she was nowhere to be seen, and then we started bringing out her next of kin,” Edwards said. “Two minutes before the end of the show, she arrived.”
No traffic jams or disasters Sunday. The show is already taped and in the can, two more “lives” in the life of Ralph Edwards. Eat your computerized heart out, Max Headroom.