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May 12, 2011

Bill Todman

By Libby Slate

For most kids, the parental decree is a stern, “No TV until you’ve done your homework.” But when Lisa Todman was growing up in Scarsdale, New York, she would often hear her father’s impatient, “Are you finished with your homework yet? You’ve got to watch this show!”

That’s because dad was Bill Todman, with Mark Goodson one-half of the famed Goodson-Todman game show production empire, and his clarion call wasn’t so much a behest to shirk schoolwork as to preview what might become the next star in the duo’s ever-expanding onscreen firmament.

Watch a show, or play it herself: “I remember clearly with Password playing that at home, before it was made, sitting on the sun porch with Daddy standing there,” says Lisa, now living in Memphis, Tennessee. “He said, ‘This is a new game. This is how it works.’ It was just on paper — Milton Bradley hadn’t made the home game yet! And I remember going to the office and doing run-throughs. There was a lot of gaming.”

Indeed. Goodson and Todman may not have invented the game show genre (which began in radio), but they produced some of its longest-running programs: What’s My Line? (original run CBS 1950-1967, later in syndication); I’ve Got a Secret (original run CBS 1952-1967, later in syndication and on cable); To Tell the Truth (original run CBS 1956-1968, later NBC and in syndication) and Password (original run CBS 1961-1967, later ABC and other runs under various names).

Two classics are still on the air, now produced by other companies, The Price is Right (original run NBC 1956-1963, ABC 1963-1965, returning in 1972 on CBS) and Family Feud (original run ABC 1976-1985, later CBS and now in syndication). Their many other game shows include Beat the Clock, The Match Game, Double Dare, Card Sharks and Call My Bluff.

A 1963 article in — of all places — Sports Illustrated noted that more than 125 million Americans watched and played Goodson-Todman games each week; that aforementioned Milton Bradley Password home version was the top-selling box game of 1962, with two million sold. Their shows’ catch phrases became part of the popular culture, such as To Tell the Truth’s “Will the real So-and-so please stand up?” to reveal which one of three stump-the-panel contestants was not an impostor, and “Is it bigger than a bread box?” to help determine an object’s size in What’s My Line?’s guess-the-profession mission. And as recently as 2008, the book Legends of Producing, distributed by the Producers Guild of America and Variety, named the team the most successful game show producers of all time.

“Daddy kept a white board at home, with the TV schedule on it,” Lisa Todman recalls. “They had so many shows. I think, when it was the most, we had fifty-three half-hour increments every week.”

Not bad for a Johns Hopkins University chemistry and psychology major who initially planned on becoming a doctor. Born Wilbur S. Todman in 1916 in New York City — he changed his name legally to William after his uncle William, for whom he was intended to be named, passed away — Todman grew up in an environment of accomplishment and privilege: his father was esteemed Wall Street accountant Frederick S. Todman, who wrote several books about accounting principles.

The summer before entering Johns Hopkins medical school, Todman took a job as a junior copywriter at an ad agency in the CBS building in New York. There, he met CBS radio employees over lunch in the cafeteria, landing freelance work writing scripts. Eventually, he became head writer and director of The Connie Boswell Show, starring the jazz vocalist.

“He was always a writer,” points out son Bill, Jr., himself a producer. “Even in college, he wrote plays, and for the newspaper. His creative calling got the best of him.”

(Todman’s interest in medicine never abated, though; in part, his son says, because “he was a bit of a hypochondriac.” With good reason: as a child, he survived two bouts of rheumatic fever. The second time around, his parents took him to recuperate in Switzerland, where he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah.)

Todman met Goodson in 1941 on a WABC radio quiz show called The Battle of the Boroughs, for which Todman was the writer and Goodson the emcee. They began working together on game show ideas, and in 1946, after World War II, Todman sold Goodson’s creation, Winner Take All, to CBS’ new television network. It premiered in July 1948.

The show established the team’s innovation from its inception: it was the first program where contestants vied against each other, rather than individually against the emcee, and the first to bring winners back for another episode, until they were defeated. It also featured a lockout buzzer system, never before used.

The following year they began work on the show that would establish a Goodson-Todman hallmark: using celebrities on a panel, while at the same time honoring ordinary people. Conceived by a staff member named Bob Bach, What’s My Line? premiered on CBS in 1950 and featured a quartet of witty well-known panelists who tried to guess contestants’ occupations. It became a long-running primetime hit.

The combination proved irresistible to viewers of subsequent shows as well. Password did its predecessors one better, teaming celebrities and non-stars in a high-stakes vocabulary contest.

The Goodson-Todman shows also knew how to involve home viewers. “They were incredibly entertaining mental exercises,” enthuses 1995 Television Academy Hall of Fame honoree Betty White, who met her husband, Password host Allen Ludden, when she guested on the show. “You could not watch a Goodson-Todman game show without finding yourself participating — you just had to. They were the class act of the western world.”

Despite his creative bent, as time went on, Todman, the accountant’s son, became known as the businessman of the two. As he told Sports Illustrated’s Gilbert Rogin, “I’m primarily involved in being a sounding board. Basically, Mark’s in charge of production, I handle the contracts, sales, economy, budget; the minutiae. We complement each other.” (Goodson was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1993.)

Say Bob Stewart, a 2010 Hall of Fame inductee who created Password, To Tell the Truth and The Price is Right, “Bill was the guy who would talk to the agents, to business affairs. The ability, in those days, to negotiate with the networks was a very special skill. When we approached them with an idea, there was a real open atmosphere. They welcomed us in nicely. Once they showed an interest in something we pitched, Bill would come in and do the negotiations. He was very instrumental in that company becoming very, very wealthy. He was also a great guy to be with socially.”

On the social front, Stewart says that Todman had a “certain kid quality, sort of a delight,” which he believes helped foster an attraction to game shows and which, he says, was on display at Christmas parties. In a publicity still with Goodson, Todman — cigarette jauntily in hand — looks effervescent, barely contained by the pose, looking more like a member of the Rat Pack than a businessman. He and Frank Sinatra were friends, Bill, Jr., says. Still, he adds, Todman, Sr., was a private person, and gave few interviews.

While numbers mattered to Todman, so did people: Lisa Todman says he was a hands-on father, while Bill, Jr., calls him the “go-to guy, if anybody had any issues or problems.” As Goodson once described to Sports Illustrated: “Bill is kind, generous, somewhat dismayed by me. We have our own groups, but we are certainly friends. He would be the man I’d come to instantly in time of trouble. My tendency is to give a man a raise according to his merit. The way to get a raise from Bill is to need it.”

And, recalls longtime Price is Right host and 2004 Hall of Fame inductee Bob Barker, “He was a delightful man. He personified a man you might aspire to be: a gentleman, personable, successful, handsome and very intelligent. He had the attributes to sell you anything, and the intelligence to sell it beautifully. On one of my first days there, we chatted alone. His kindness and flattering remarks, that he’d admired my work [as host of Truth or Consequences] made me feel very comfortable, very much at home.”

While the game shows were their forte and their fortune, Goodson-Todman also produced early primetime live dramas, most notably the anthology series The Web (CBS 1950-1954), and primetime Westerns including The Rebel (ABC 1959-1961), starring Nick Adams, and Branded (NBC 1965-1966), starring Chuck Connors.

“They wanted to expand their horizons; nobody wants to be pigeonholed,” says Andrew J. Fenady, who produced the westerns with the duo. Todman was an avid rider and a western fan, and where the shows were concerned, “You could talk to him any time,” Fenady says “He was there if we needed something. And the Goodson-Todman accounting was impeccable. We never went over budget, and we made a lot of money from their honest bookkeeping. They were very, very fair-minded partners.”

Todman also expanded the team’s horizons beyond television, into ownership of newspapers, radio stations and New York real estate. But it’s the game shows, of course, which are his television legacy; he died during heart valve replacement surgery in New York on July 29, 1979, two days before his sixty-third birthday.

Other than that “kidlike” personality, just why did game shows appeal to Bill Todman so much?

“With the original group of programs, it was always answering questions,” says Lisa Todman. “He was like a sponge. No matter what the topic was, if there was knowledge, he was interested.

“He had a marvelous sense of humor, and he liked fun,” she adds. “That also drew him. But it was mainly answering questions — and you were probably out of luck if you thought you were going to beat him at it.”

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