A Tribute to Tomarken

Earlier today, I recieved the link to a Yahoo! TV news story via IM from friend Dave Livingston and was told "brace yourself". Thinking it was good news, I clicked, only to learn that it was exactly the opposite: Peter Tomarken, of "Press Your Luck" fame, had been killed in a plane crash at age 63 (along with his wife).

Shocked and saddened at the unexpected loss of this game show great, I think it only fitting to memorialize him as best I can and describe just what make him a host that truly defined his TV generation.

Originally a magazine editor, then an ad executive (during which time he got his first TV exposure, appearing in local commercials for his firm), Peter had made several attempts to get into game shows following the advice of his agent. Hooking up with former Goodson-Todman staff producer Jay Wolpert (who had started his own production company only 2 years earlier), he did two unsold 1981 pilots: "Rodeo Drive" (which would make it to air years later, albeit with a different host) and "Duel In the Daytime".

However, third time was a charm, and Tomarken got his first series with "Hit Man", which premiered at the beginning of 1983 (during its brief run, he also did a week's stint as a celebrity on "Just Men!", which immediately followed HM on the NBC lineup). Although it lasted just 13 weeks, it showed that Peter was a capable host who could interact well with his contestants, keep the game moving, and provide just the right touch of humor. In addition, it marked the first time Peter and his future "Press Your Luck" partner-in-crime, announcer Rod Roddy, would work together.

Despite HM's failure, Peter wasn't out of a job for long, as just 6 months later, the series that really established him as a game show host premiered on CBS. From its Sep. 1983 debut, "Press Your Luck" was an instant hit with game show fans everywhere; despite its apparent simplicity, it proved to be a very well-executed show due to its fast-paced gameplay, great contestants, the ever-popular Whammies, and Peter's fine hosting job. While always remaining in control, he shared in both the excitement and agony of winning and losing contestants alike, had a solid rapport with his aforementioned announcer/sidekick Rod Roddy, and always delighted in closing later episodes with a PYL poem or two sent in by home viewers. And on the rare occasions when mistakes occured, Peter handled them with a certain charm (who could forget the infamous "Sylvester" episode, when he took a phone call from Mel Blanc?).

Besides its success, PYL also ensured a place in history for Peter, when an unemployed Ohio ice cream truck driver named Michael Larson memorized the board pattern, and after going seemingly non-stop over the course of a single episode (the only time a game had to be continued on the next show), walked away with $110,237 in cash and prizes. During the course of the two-part episode, Peter's reactions were often priceless, showing he was just as much in awe as anybody else watching this event unfold.

When PYL was cancelled in Sep. 1986, fans may have been disappointed, but Peter would soon return to the small screen in the summer of 1987 with "Bargain Hunters" on ABC. Although this lackluster cross between "The Price is Right" and home shopping was a quick failure (which Peter himself, in an oft-quoted remark, infamously referred to as "a piece of shit"!), not helped by frequent pre-emptions for Iran-Contra hearings, it didn't take long for Peter to find another series.

"Wipeout", which aired during the 1988-89 season, followed by 2 years of reruns on cable's USA Network, became a cult favorite among game show fans. In one memorable episode, Peter even let loose a hillarious Freudian slip while explaining the rules, accidentally telling the contestants to try to "avoid the Whammy"; after a good laugh, Peter remarked "I knew that was gonna happen someday!".

After "Wipeout" was cancelled, Peter did several unsold pilots (Show Me the World, Winds of Fortune, TKO), but finally made a triumphant return with the launch of a brand new cable channel: the Game Show Network. After it signed on Dec. 1, 1994 with a 10-minute montage of clips from virtaully every show that they had the rights to, Peter held the distinction of being the first on-air personality to be seen on-camera, opening with "Wow, that was unreal! Hi, I'm Peter Tomarken...err, I think.", and before his departure in 1997, he would be seen nightly on the network's "Prime Games" block, hosting the wrap-around interactive game segments to give home viewers a chance to (as GSN's then-motto went) "watch, play, and win". And who could forget the memorable Halloween night in 1996, when he appeared in drag(!) as co-host Marianne Curan?

Three years after leaving GSN (during which time Peter tried his hand at acting, notably as a reporter on "Ally McBeal"), Peter returned to the game show arena as host of Fox Family's "Paranoia", a short-lived 2000 attempt to cash in on the big money quiz craze. Despite its short run (prompting an emotional goodbye from Peter on the finale), the series did have a memorable moment: going to commercial on the premiere, Peter had another Freudian slip as he told viewers they'd "be right back here on Game Show Net-...uh, Fox Family!". However, as was the case with his Whammy-Wipeout blooper, viewers laughed with him and not at him, knowing what a thrill it was to see him back.

Two years later, when it was announced that GSN would be reviving the show that put Peter on the map as "Whammy! The All-New PYL", viewers were ecstatic at the thought of seeing him back in his element. And although passed in favor of network stalwart Todd Newton, he wasn't completely out of the picture, appearing in GSN's March 2003 documentary "Big Bucks: The Michael Larson Story", offering his thoughts on the experience and inviting the former challengers on Larson's episode to play a mock version of the game. He also returned to host the question round on a special "reunion" episode of Whammy (which, in its original airing, preceded the aforementioned documentary) that pitted Larson's former opponents against the brother of "the man" himself, James Larson.

After moving away from TV, Peter (who was also a licensed airplane pilot) became involved with Angel Flight West, a nonprofit organization which provides free air transportation for needy patients. It was his plane that was heading to San Diego to ferry a medical patient to the UCLA Medical Center at the time of the fatal crash, and while some may lament the bitter irony, we can take comfort in knowing that Peter died a hero, a goodwill ambassador whose passing was not in vain.

Godspeed, Peter. You were not just a TV personality I grew up with, but also a man who proved it's possible to be a success in every sense of the word. Whether watching you on GSN or hearing about your other accomplishments, you'll always be remembered.

- Chuck Donegan, Mar. 13, 2006
(image courtesy of Ray Dinally)