Peter Tomarken, who was the host of numerous TV game shows, including the popular “Press Your Luck,” was killed Monday along with his wife when the small plane he was piloting on a volunteer medical mission to San Diego crashed into Santa Monica Bay.
Tomarken, 63, was leaving Santa Monica Airport on a trip for Angel Flight West, which provides air transportation to medical patients who are unable to afford air travel, when he reported engine trouble and attempted to return to the airport about 9:30 a.m. A few minutes later, beachgoers said they saw a plane go down just south of the Santa Monica Pier and crash into the ocean, causing a large splash.
U.S. Coast Guard and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department rescuers pulled the 1973 Beechcraft A36 out of the water and recovered the bodies of Tomarken and his wife, Kathleen, 41. A third person, believed to be on the flight but who was not immediately identified, was missing and presumed dead, authorities said.
Tomarken was never a household name, but during the 1980s and early ‘90s, he was a familiar face to TV viewers.
Agent Fred Wostbrock, who represented Tomarken, said he had received calls of condolence from such game show luminaries as Monty Hall, Peter Marshall and Wink Martindale.
“Peter was an everyday guy with a bright smile and brighter sense of humor, two key ingredients to becoming a successful game show host,” Wostbrock said. “He spoke to a generation of fans in the 1980s.”
Tomarken had an eclectic Hollywood career that began in the 1970s in commercials and bit parts in television shows.
From there, Tomarken gravitated into game shows, finally breaking into the genre in 1983, the same year that Pat Sajak and Vanna White began their decades-long run with “Wheel of Fortune.”
Tomarken’s first show was “Hit Man,” in which contestants climbed a ladder by answering questions about a short story. His biggest hit came a year later, when “Press Your Luck” made its debut on CBS. The game was somewhat like a video version of “Wheel of Fortune,” in which contestants moved around a lighted square board that included cash prizes and gifts as well as a cartoon character known as “Whammy” who could take all their winnings.
When “Press Your Luck” ended its run in 1986, Tomarken moved on to other game shows, including “Bargain Hunters,” “Wordplay,” “Wipeout” and “Monopoly.”
In more recent years, Tomarken became a fixture on the Game Show Network, which reran some of his shows. He also was the host of a documentary on the network about a contestant who won $110,000 on “Press Your Luck” by determining patterns to the game. And he was the host of infomercials.
Wostbrock said Tomarken loved the genre of game shows, even as such programs have become much less popular in the last decade or so.
Tomarken is perhaps best known in the annals of game show history for ushering in an era of programs that used computer-generated graphics and themes. The most famous was the computerized “Whammy” cartoon character who menaced contestants on “Press Your Luck.”
“He truly did enjoy being in front of the camera and working with the contestants,” said Dana Tomarken, who was married for 30 years to Tomarken. “He loved the excitement of it all. He was doing what he loved to do.”
Wostbrock issued a statement from veteran game show host Bob Eubanks saying: “Peter was one of the most underrated game show hosts in television. He could adapt to any type of game show format.”
Tomarken had been helping fly sick people in need of medical care since August. He was among 1,400 pilots who volunteer for Angel Flight West.
Doug Griffith, a spokesman for the group, said Tomarken was scheduled to take a patient from San Diego to UCLA Medical Center for treatment.
“Everybody remembered him because he was so enthusiastic about flying Angel Flight missions,” Griffith said. “He was a guy who didn’t need to do this, but he had a pilot’s license and an airplane to contribute, to use his station in life to tangibly help people. It’s devastating.”