A Conversation with Tom Kennedy

(as told by David Hammett, Feb. 6, 1996)

Well, a.t.g-s folks, we may have ourselves an opportunity here. Fred Wostbrock is an agent to many of our favorite game show celebs, and thanks to him we will hopefully be able to get some good current information on some of our favorite game show stars!

Based on some recent posts on our group, I told Fred that the first person we would like to hear from was Tom Kennedy. So, rather than Fred getting the info from Tom for us, I got the outstanding honor of speaking to Mr. Kennedy myself! You don't need me to tell you that this was a dream come true... we spent around an hour and a half on the phone chatting about the various shows he has done, and what his prospects are for the future. Not surprisingly, the man is extremely nice, and it was a joy speaking with him. What follows is a synopsis of some of the more interesting parts of the conversation.

When I asked Tom about his favorite show(s), although he enjoyed all of them, two came quickly to mind... "You Don't Say!" and "Name That Tune." YDS was Tom's launching pad to much of the other work he did (although his first hosting job, "Big Game," aired five years earlier), while NTT gave Tom his first significant nighttime exposure.

"You Don't Say!" was, according to Tom, a very entertaining show, but also informative. He related a story to me about how people trying to learn English used the show as a learning tool, which I thought was interesting. He was especially excited when it was brought back in 1975... he thought it would take off. But then comes along Fred Silverman, who had just acquired "The Edge of Night" from CBS. With YDS as low man on the totem pole, it was yanked from the air after only five months.

Other shows that Tom commented on...

"Split Second" -- "I worked the hardest on that show and Name That Tune. The pace made you dizzy. It was a merry-go-round backstage, trying to change into a new suit and going over the questions after just finishing a game. Stu Billett is the one responsible for the five cars," which Tom thought was a great idea. He knew Markie Post (then a researcher on the show), but had forgotten that one of the contestants on the last show was Judd Rose, now a reporter on "Prime Time Live."

"Break the Bank" -- "I loved it... that show was a romp!" He said that someone told him that the numbers were weak, and so Silverman ordered the show cancelled immediately. When I pointed out to Tom that ABC then expanded its soap operas to fill the void, he remarked that Silverman was committed to a heavy block of soaps, and that BTB was perhaps a stopgap (it only lasted 15 weeks) until the new expanded soaps could be readied.

"50 Grand Slam" -- "It was fun, but sloppily put together." He related the story of two experts in musical comedy, both of whom were asked a question about the composer of "Silk Stockings." Both correctly answered Cole Porter, while Tom's card said Irving Berlin. Both contestants gave Tom obviously puzzled looks, but, waiting until the commercial, they then contested the answer; the research department checked and determined they were right.

"Name That Tune" -- Tom said that Ralph Edwards (the producer) was wonderful. We discussed the blooper in which the guard (Jeff Addis) could not remember the combination to the safe containing the $100,000 tune. Tom said they got a big kick out of that, and that was the fun part of doing television (especially when it was live)... when things screwed up!

"To Say the Least" -- "It was a cute show. One of the first celebrities to appear on the show was Alex Trebek. We also had, on one show, Alex and Soupy Sales... isn't that a pair?" I can only imagine...

"Whew!" -- "Hell of a show... the thought was very clever... Jay Wolpert was very bright. The only problem was that the show was too fast... there was a lot of humor that was missed." He said the word that best described the show was "frenetic." I mentioned to him that it always seemed as if the charger had a disadvantage, at least based on what we saw usually happen; he agreed.

"Password Plus" -- "It is the most basic game... it was fabulous. When Allen took ill, he said he wanted me to replace him on the show. Our friendship went way back to when Password, You Don't Say!, and Match Game were the three hottest shows on the air."

"Body Language" -- "I got to work with Lucille Ball... it made you want to pinch yourself and ask, `How did I get here?' I loved Betty White... my wife's name is Betty, and I always say that I'm married to two Bettys. My Betty is #1, and Betty White is #2. Charles Nelson Reilly was a delight. The show was enjoyable, but it didn't flow very naturally... it was a second rate show, but it was made first rate thanks to the celebrities we had." I asked if BL was basically a remake of "Showoffs": "Yes. Goodson was in love with Showoffs, so he asked his staff to rework the idea."

"The Price Is Right" (syndicated) -- "I was privileged to be asked to do it; the show is a classic, beautiful. But I was never happy with my job on it... it made me appreciate Bob Barker's job. I had to learn 45-50 games; it doesn't sound like much until you try to remember your marks, cues, etc. Bob makes it seem so effortless; that's what makes him a pro. I was so overwhelmed with it all." He thought it would have taken off in another year, but as he put it, "The syndicated world is weird. No one thought Wheel of Fortune would make it, and look what happened."

"Wordplay" -- "Loved it... thought it was a damn fine show. It was done by Fiedler and Berlin -- it was their first network game show. Then NBC decided it wanted to do business with Disney, and opted for a new show from Bert Convy and Burt Reynolds." We all know what that was, right? :)

He has also done some older pilots, including one called "Higher/Lower," which was shot at NBC. A Ralph Andrews production, it basically had contestants competing a la the TPIR Clock Game, trying to guess the prices of 10 items in 60 seconds.

As for other hosts that he knows, Tom claims to "know 'em all," but singles out Peter Marshall as a good friend, as well as Tom's brother, Jack Narz. Tom was also good friends with Bill Cullen... "one of the best people ever to breathe air."

Tom enjoyed most (as a rule) the shows where he got to work with celebrities; he felt like he was at his "best and easiest" on those shows. He had fond memories of some of the older shows and the celebs that would appear, such as Pat Carroll, Peter Lawford, and Mel Torme. Tom also guested on several game shows himself, which he enjoyed, but not as much as hosting.

I asked him how he got his start. He credited two people... his brother, Jack Narz... and Andy Kelly, who asked Tom to come in and read to be a spokesman for Kaiser Cars in downtown L.A. in 1952. He then went on to do commercials on television, and while Jack was pointing Tom toward agencies and heads of stations, Tom was racking up a lot of experience working with people by emceeing various live non-televised shows... something he would come to realize was invaluable in a game show host's training.

In the last few years, Tom has developed two shows of note. One was a show called "Tom Kennedy's World of Humor," which didn't sell here but did in England to the BBC as "Joker in the Pack" in 1992. The next year, versions of the show aired in Germany, Spain, and Portugal as well. The show no longer airs overseas. The other show is a game show pilot called "Star Play," which Tom co-produced with Carol Burnett. In describing it to me, he made it sound like "You Don't Say!" played with charades. Imagine Carol Burnett acting out a cymbal, a ship, and a bird. That would lead you to say, "Cybill Shepherd!" Pat Harrington, Robert Guillaume, Valerie Harper, and Deidre Hall were among guests on the pilot. The show was developed in 1989; Tom still holds out some chance that it could get sold at some point.

When I asked him if he'd want to do "Password" again, he said it would be his pleasure, although his general outlook on the game show front was not overly optimistic. He feels that something will develop, but nothing significant in the near future. One comment he did have , however, with regard to "Password" in all of its incarnations... despite all of the name changes, he said that the name of the next version of the game should be, simply, "Password," implying that no superlatives are needed.

So that was the conversation in a big nutshell. I hope you found some morsel or two of interest in all of this...

(follow-up conversation, Feb. 25, 1996)

Based on a.t.g-s's response to the Tom Kennedy conversation, I asked him a couple of follow-up questions. Several of you remembered that he did "The Real Tom Kennedy Show," a talk show back in 1970. "I was thrilled to get my own show," he says; "I was in love with it, but it was a bad time." By that he meant that Mike Douglas had been doing well, and that a guy by the name of Phil Donahue was starting to usher in a new type of talk show as well. On his first show he had Rowan and Martin, Pat Carroll, and a then unknown Foster Brooks. Louis Nye and Lola Falana also appeared. He had two regular singers, John McCormick and Kelly Garrett, along with Dave Pell and his orchestra. It lasted nine weeks in about 30 markets, and then was cancelled.

Some of you also asked about "It's Your Bet." This show was a later version of one called "I'll Bet," which aired on NBC in 1965 and was hosted by Tom's brother Jack Narz. Tom and his wife Betty even appeared on that version. IYB taped in San Diego. "I enjoyed the show, and I especially enjoyed the city... I'd go down every two or three weeks to tape shows, then stay an extra few days to enjoy the city itself."

Tom also related a quick story about how at one point while he was living close to North Hollywood, he had within two blocks of his house such names as Bob Hope, Jonathan Winters, Forrest Tucker, and Joe Campanella. Nice neighbors to have, huh?

(NOTE: I, Chuck Donegan, had no contact whatsoever w/the GS personality whose reminiscences appear above; what you have just read was a transcript of a phone interview conducted by David Hammett, as originally posted to ATGS on the date mentioned at the top of the page)