Monday, February 6, 2017

Brooks on Books: Backstage with the Original Hollywood Squares by Peter Marshall

Peter Marshall has lived a fascinating life filled with a wide variety of accomplishments. If a recent podcast appearance is any indication, he remains active and erudite at age 90, with plenty of stories about his entire career.

This book is not about his entire career, though. After a brief bit of biographical info, Marshall gets right into the story of Hollywood Squares, the iconic game show he hosted from its inception in 1966 until 1981. It's a fun read, packed with anecdotes, trivia, and personal remembrances but also solid history of the series itself.

Marshall talks about the origins of Squares, how he got the gig (replacing pilot host Bert Parks), and shares his views on regulars like Paul Lynde and Wally Cox (a surprising character in many ways) as well as the numerous other celebs who served on the panel over the years. The book is warm--Marshall's memories of the show are almost all fond--and his portrait of the cast and crew as a mostly happy family should please fans. Marshall doesn't go into detail about the drinking that took place on taping days, but he doesn't shy away from it, either, and he has (relatively tasteful) tales of off-camera debauchery that took place when the show traveled on junket-type expeditions or just shot on location. There's a brief anecdote involving Pat Buttram and a prostitute that caught my attention.

It's a surprisingly candid account with some naming of names, but Marshall has genuine fondness for his colleagues and most of the guests. Some celebrities who weren't even on the show don't come off so well.  Take John Wayne, who wrote Marshall an angry letter after being used as a punchline in one episode, saying, "I God damned well resent..." the reference.

The process of making the show and putting together the questions is a compelling tale. The producers weren't allowed to give guests the questions, but they provided bluffs/zingers to use and kind of gave them enough info to know what to prepare their "ad-libs" about if they weren't gonna get assistance from the writers.

There are lots of tidbits in here, but here's a sampling of some of his picks in various categories:

Favorite celebrity square: George Gobel
Least favorite: Jackie Mason (long-winded, would interrupt all the other celebrities)
Biggest pain in the ass: Tony Randall (He just went on and on one time and was so busy being "witty and erudite" that it slowed the game, and Marshall actually called him out on the air.)
Sexiest woman ever on the show: Diana Rigg (She showed up her first time wearing a t-shirt that said TITS. "Classy!)
Funniest square ever: Mel Brooks
Star with the least understanding of how to play the game: Groucho Marx (Marshall says he kept talking because he thought the show needed to avoid dead air.)
The only contestant who later returned as a star: OJ Simpson (No comment.)
There is a master list of celebs who appeared as Squares at the end, and I would accuse Marshall of padding, but there's plenty in here to provide good value, and he seems sincere in his desire to provide a record for posterity. Learning that Norman Fell was a good friend of Burt Reynolds or that Richard Burton had designs on Karen Valentine (not that I blame either one of those guys) is almost enough to make this a worthwhile read, but the whole book is an engaging experience and a must for anyone interested in the original incarnation of the classic game show.

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