“I’m a pretty good comer-upper with ideas,” the late Mark Goodson, television’s most successful producer of game shows once said, “and I’m a shaper. Creativity requires two opposing tendencies: You have to be loose for ideas and critical for form. I am basically very critical. In the game show field, I go to the workroom and become an artisan. I am concerned with the smallest detail: The hydraulic machinery used on Password, the position of the emcee, the theme song. My lack of satisfaction is my greatest strength and my greatest weakness. I am a perfectionist.”
Jonathan Goodson, the president of Mark Goodson Productions and the son of its founder, remembers his father as “incapable or unwilling to make a distinction between work and any other area of his life. There was nothing that was not work-related for him, whether it was friends or so-called leisure time. Behind the scenes of every game show he created were philosophical debates about equity and justice and machinations. My father created formats that were perfectly balanced: What’s My Line?, I’ve Got A Secret, To Tell the Truth, Concentration, The Price Is Right, Match Game, Family Feud … The list goes on.
“My father and his staff would have long, fascinating, passionate debates about how best to create shows. By and large, the people he associated with were intellectually stimulating. He loved the intellectual New York crowd. There is a certain irony about my father and what people view as insipid game shows because he was a man who was Phi Beta Kappa, who read very widely and who rarely watched television, not even his own shows very much. He loved the adventures of vocabulary and etymology. He spoke Italian, Spanish, French, a little German and a smattering of Yiddish because his parents spoke Yiddish.”
The son of Russian émigré parents, Mark Goodson was born in Sacramento, California, on January 24, 1915, and endured poverty as a child. In 1937, he graduated cum laude from the University of California in Berkeley.
Goodson became an announcer at San Francisco radio station KFRC, where he could also be heard as the emcee of Pop the Question, a quiz show.
In 1941, Goodson moved to New York City and during the war years became the emcee for The Jack Dempsey Sports Quiz, The Answer Man and the Japanese and German villains of We the People. Then he experienced a phenomenon that transformed his career.
Mark Goodson remembered that “one day out of the blue I was afflicted with an acute case of mike fright. I had been a talker/performer/debater my entire life and had never once suffered from stage fright. And now I had it good. Suddenly, I knew I could no longer talk in front of a microphone. After six or seven months, I lost all my announcing jobs. I was a new father, and I had to make a living some way. So I went out and started a dramatic show of my own, Appointment with Life, based on the case files of a marriage counselor.”
While teamed with writer-director Bill Todman on the radio quiz show Battle of the Boroughs, Goodson created his first quiz show, Winner Take All, which Todman sold to CBS Radio.
Also the team’s first television show, Winner Take All introduced several innovations: simultaneous multiple players, a returning champion and a response buzzer that “locked out” the other player.
“Game shows, as a genre, are almost impossible to ‘explain,’” Goodson reminisced in 1985. “They are not a part of mainline show business and so are generally quite misunderstood.”
In 1950, Goodson turned the traditional radio quiz-show format on its ear with What’s My Line?, a CBS Sunday-night tradition for 17 years. Said Goodson, “Line? started a trend which transformed the classic schoolroom quiz into something else: ‘The Game!’ Instead of doing a quiz game where we would ask panelists and contestants to answer questions, What's My Line? used, as the puzzle to be solved, a real human being. The panel was challenged to solve a human problem, rather than an academic one. It became a game of ‘real life.’ We didn’t ask Bennett Cerf or Arlene Francis questions; they asked the questions. And that form continued through a whole series of shows, including To Tell the Truth and I’ve Got a Secret, prior to the days of the talk shows. Line? was an elegant talk show, plus a game. People would say, ‘I like to tune in and watch those interesting people talk.’”
Goodson avoided any involvement in the quiz show scandals of the late 1950s by always keeping his shows scrupulously honest.
Kitty Carlisle Hart, one of the mainstay panelists of To Tell the Truth in prime time and syndication, says, “I always thought that Mark was fascinating. He was very intellectual and a wonderful companion because he was fun to be with. He was very au courant and loved the theater. Mark never left anything to chance in his business. Every single tiny detail of his shows were checked. That was part of his genius. Genius is 10 percent talent and 90 percent hard work.
“In the early days when Mark created panel shows, he chose people who could speak well. He understood the value of someone who could put words together because he himself was so good at it. He said what he meant, and he spoke beautifully. He also had great taste in furnishings. His homes were very well-appointed and always in great order.”
Betty White, who appeared on many of Goodson’s shows, says, “I always looked on Mark’s shows as mental exercises. That was the kind of class that Mark brought to that genre. When we lost him, we lost any pretense of that. The secret ingredient to Mark was that he loved to play games. At dinner, for instance, he involved you in mental challenges, and he thought of games that way and not big-money contestants, jumping up and down and screaming.
“What I loved about Mark was that he was never too important to show up when you needed him. He just jumped on a plane and went. He was very opinionated and didn’t fit into any mold. He was an absolute original. We don’t clone Mark Goodsons. If we could, we would have a long time ago. He was his own man.”
Jonathan Goodson, an attorney who joined his father’s company in 1973, is now organizing the Game Show Channel, a cable venture in association with Sony that will launch in Spring 1994. He recalls Mark Goodson’s roller-coaster creativity patterns:
“The last good show my father developed was Family Feud in the mid-‘70s,” Jonathan says. “It was his comeback. He went through spurts of creativity and long dry periods when he was depressed. He was not a happy man despite all his money and all his success. His personal life never came together. He divorced three times. When he was depressed, he was unable to create. In the mid-‘70s, he was happy as a clam.”
Although he produced several dramatic series, including The Rebel and The Richard Boone Repertory Theater, and owned a newspaper group, Goodson was reluctant to work with formats he was unfamiliar with.
“I loathe failure," he said. “As a result, I don’t do too many things. What I do, I do aggressively. What I can’t do, I retreat from rapidly. I’m really quite helpless at a cocktail party, a real schlepper; I feel most comfortable of all in an office or the studio. I feel I belong there. I truly come to life.”
Goodson died on December 18, 1992, after a long illness. He won three Emmys, as well as the Emmy for Lifetime Achievement in Daytime and the National Television Award of Great Britain. His many philanthropic activities also perpetuate his name, most especially through the Mark Goodson Building at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Mark Goodson's induction in 1993.