Filling in the once-bawdy blank

Times Staff Writer

Decades before “The Osbournes” gave the American public a peek into the family life of a rock legend, before “Chaotic” detailed pop princess Britney Spears’ unraveling, before “Being Bobby Brown” captured celebrity dysfunction in its fullest flower, one little daytime quiz show brought the unguarded moments of television’s biggest stars into American homes every afternoon. And it captured the lifestyle of swinging 1970s California more vividly than any Joan Didion novel or Robert Altman film.

After a brief stint in a staid, buttoned-up, black-and-white incarnation in the ‘60s, “Match Game” relaunched in 1973 and immediately became the grooviest celeb hangout on the airwaves. Ostensibly a straightforward word game, the format served as a sometimes thin-seeming excuse for the era’s TV icons to joke around in a split-level celebrity panel led by definitional 1970s “personalities” Charles Nelson Reilly, Brett Somers and Richard Dawson.

The rules were simple. Host Gene Rayburn read a phrase in which one word was left out and read as a “blank.” (For instance: “The bank guard said to Bertha the stripper, ‘Lady, I don’t care how valuable you think they are. You can’t keep your ‘blanks’ in our safety deposit vault.’ ”). Contestants then guessed what word should fill in the blank followed by the rotating panel of six celebrities. For each celebrity whose answer they “matched,” the contestant received a point.


Minutes into the show, however, the rules were often thrown out the window as the party commenced on a glittering, shag-carpeted set that seemed the embodiment of the era’s foppish excess — like a Las Vegas showroom, a suburban conversation pit and the hospitality lounge of a Concorde jet had been melded together.

Twenty-four years after its cancellation in 1982, “Match Game” continues to inspire a cult following, with a host of tribute sites on the Internet and an enduring following on the Game Show Network, which runs episodes daily, and Sunday will air “The Real Match Game Story: Behind the Blank,” an hourlong special on the show’s history. According to Rich Cronin, GSN’s president and chief executive, “ ‘Match Game’ debuted on GSN when the network launched in 1994 and has consistently been one of our top-rated classics.”

“God it was fun,” gushed regular Marcia Wallace on Wednesday. “We knew at the time that it was a great gig.”

Brought together for a two-hour lunch conversation at Santa Monica’s Casa del Mar hotel, Wallace’s and fellow regular Jimmie Walker’s affection for the show brimmed over.

“It was a show of euphemisms and it was wildly hilarious,” remembered Wallace, who these days is heard as the voice of Bart’s teacher on “The Simpsons” and has just written her memoir, “Don’t Look Back, We’re Not Going That Way.”

The show’s comedy flourished with the thrill of first acknowledgment of forbidden fruit but retained an air of refinement and innocence that TV would quickly lose once the floodgates to the bacchanal were hurled open. “Naughty is not in now,” Walker reflected, adding that nowadays the innuendo goes further.

Life on the “Match Game” set, Wallace and Walker report, was indeed borderline out of control. Wallace recalled meeting regular Somers her first day on the show. “Brett said, ‘Oh, hello darling, you must forgive me, I’m not myself. I just separated from my husband,’ and I said, ‘I wouldn’t notice. I just got out of the loony bin.’ From then on we were best friends.”

On-air, the show managed to capture, in the most static of TV formats, the feeling of a loose and friendly, very grown-up cocktail party, complete with drinks and cigarettes. Five shows would be filmed in one day and, Walker said, “After the second show we went to lunch, and there was this big flask and there would be people who would imbibe.”

“It was a vodka group,” concurred Wallace, who said few were actually drunk, merely loosened up. It is noted in GSN’s documentary that when watching a week’s worth of shows, the episodes filmed later in the day have a decidedly more buoyant tone.

The pair also credit much of the game’s success to host Rayburn, notable for his Cheshire cat grin, three-piece suits with a pocket square, conspicuous flirtations with the panelist in the “dumb blond seat” and his legendary 12-inch wand microphone.

“Gene was our handler,” Walker said. “He knew the personalities on the show and he put you in a position where you would have a chance to do whatever you wanted to do. He would never leave you hanging.”

But what truly gave the show its tone of mischievous adult wit was its reliance on a class of celebrity that is all but extinct today: “the TV personality,” as personified by two of the permanent panelists around whose chemistry the show revolved: Somers and Nelson Reilly (neither of whom was available for lunch). Somers, the show’s den mother in huge tinted glasses and with a perpetual cigarette in hand, kept the set alive with a constant flow of chatter. “I don’t think Brett ever stopped talking,” said Walker. “I loved her stories about the stuff she did in theater. She was the best.”

Nelson Reilly, reclining in Foster Grant glasses, pipe in mouth, brightly colored scarf around his neck, supplied the show’s driest but most outrageous wit.

To viewers, it might have seemed like the most fun place for grown-ups to be on Earth. And perhaps it was.

“What we had,” remembered Walker, “was a chemistry where nobody felt beyond anything. What we thought was, this was fun! And you’re with friends! And you’re rooting for everybody!”


`The Real Match Game Story: Behind the Blank’

Where: GSN

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG-D (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for suggestive dialogue)