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February 17, 2000

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Remembering Bill

       I'll take 30 on the red, Bill. That's true, Bill. I'll try Eye Guess, Bill. I'll say 7600, Bill. Bill, I'll freeze.
       Unless you're under 30 and truly don't remember, those phrases are embedded in your memory as conversations with a favorite friend. Bill Cullen would have been 80 years old Friday. If only we could have him back for just one visit.
       I am always amused when my youngest daughter sees the Game Show Network reruns of Bill's earlier shows. "Is that that Drew Carey guy?" she once asked me.
       I first connected with Bill in the mornings somewhere in the late 1950s. In the midst of the most frenetic audience of the day, yelling, "Higher, higher! Freeze, freeze!" Listening to that classic Cullen cadence saying, "I am sorry---you have allllllll ooooooover bid!" On the nighttime version, NBC and Goodson-Todman loved to bring on Southern women. I think just to let the rest of the country here the twang of "Bee-yull...ahllllll fraaaaaze."
       Bill had to be the master at stifling a laugh. How else could you explain his steady inflection when on consecutive weeks in the '50s, he welcomed Mr. William Butt and Mr. Joseph Craparotta to The Price Is Right.
       In those years, you could see Bill at 8:30 on The Price Is Right on NBC and one hour later on the panel of I've Got a Secret on CBS. Bill's gamesmanship was like that of a setup relief pitcher in baseball. He'd narrow the focus of the secrets and the fellow panelists would usually knock them off. A classic exchange one week between Bill and Steve Allen:
BILL: Is this something we may have read about in the papers?

STEVE: Gee, I hope not.

BILL: Why?

STEVE: 'Cause it would louse up the whole segment.
       It was on the subsequent Eye Guess where the classic Cullen humor was prevalent. A much more relaxed show than Price, Cullen sat at the podium and engaged in unscripted rejoinders with his contestants, almost in the same style as Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life.
       My favorite all-time moment was when Bill had two lulus for contestants. They had blown eight consecutive questions and the audience was laughing more uproariously with each boo-boo. Finally, the whistle sounded time as up for the day. Said Bill: "Well....we had three questions left....butttttttttt, you would've missed them, anyway!"
       By all rights, after eight solid years on the panel of the syndicated To Tell the Truth with longtime pal Garry Moore, Bill should have taken over as host when Garry decided to retire. However, Mark Goodson and producer Bruno Zirato Jr. saw losing Bill from the panel would have disrupted a chemistry which had been cemented between Bill, Peggy Cass and Kitty Carlisle.
       NBC never really recovered in daytime after the loss of Let's Make a Deal to ABC. But in the early '70s, Bill's Three on a Match had a solid three-year run in the old LMAD slot. That's where you heard the name "Bill" uttered more than at any time in game show history. Three or four times a day, during the show's bonus game, a player would say, "I'll take 20 on the red, Bill." "Let's go 30 on the green, Bill." "Bill, I'll stop."
       A sad loss is the apparent destruction of many of the nighttime $25,000 Pyramid shows Bill hosted for five years. Even though the show is almost singularly identified with Dick Clark, Bill held a steady hand over the evening weekly version.
       One of the most emotional scenes in game show history came in 1980 when Bill ended four weeks of substitute hosting Password Plus and Allen Ludden came back from one of several hospital bouts before he was forced to leave the show because of a stroke and subsequent cancer. The two men embraced amidst a huge roar from the NBC audience.
       The respect which emerged that day between two television legends could be felt through every screen in America. Said Ludden: "This man (Cullen) is the absolute best there is and he was absolutely brilliant these last four weeks."
       Shortly afterward, Ludden had the stroke which forced him off the show. Tom Kennedy tells the story of why he became Ludden's successor. "Without question, Bill should have become the host of Password Plus. He'd done a great job with the show when Allen was in the hospital," said Kennedy. "But NBC had signed him to do Chain Reaction before Allen got sick. The network really considered for a few days having Bill do both shows but decided against it. They really had hopes Chain Reaction could do well against the CBS soaps and they wanted Bill there. So, that's how I wound up being offered the show."
       Kennedy said, other than his own brother Jack Narz, he was closer to Cullen than any of his peers. "He was a master at what he did," said Kennedy in a telephone interview late last year. "People responded to Bill because he set a tone that he liked everybody himself and he really cared about his shows."
       Bill's last television appearance came as a celebrity player on the CBS version of Pyramid in 1987. Clark paid tribute on the Friday edition of the show to the then 67-year-old Cullen for his lasting contributions not only to game shows but to television, in general.
       The day Bill died in 1990, I had been news director of the ABC affiliate in Jackson, Tn., for all of two weeks. I went on the air that night, as I did three times weekly, and did a commentary. Only the subject matter was not taxes or road improvements or political considerations. The commentary was a remembrance of Bill Cullen. I mentioned tearing the story from the wire service and when I said, "Bill Cullen died," my early twentyish sports director said, "Who?" That young man had missed a broadcasting textbook by asking that question.
       Regis Philbin has joked how the producers of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire "were still looking for Bill Cullen," when Philbin came into the picture to emcee television's megahit. True, Regis has a unique personality he brings to the picture. However, Regis had many years of his youth to study the technique of Bill Cullen. Some of the best of what Regis brings to those two bar stools thrice weekly are the same characteristics we so fondly adopted about Bill.
       One wonders what Bill would have thought of the modern day quiz revival in prime time, if he were still with us. Something tells me he would never have allowed himself to oversee something as mean as Greed often is. That was the inverse of his persona.
       The 70 years he gave us were not enough. However, he injected enough into those years for us to have a legacy and body of work preserved. For that, on Bill Cullen's 80th birthday, we steal one of his classic phrases: "Thanks ever so much for being with us."

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