Article By Michael Starr
~ August, 2021 ~ Game shows have offered a steady supply of thrills, laughs, unforgettable moments and cult heroes since the dawn of TV’s “Golden Age” in the 1950s.
Yet behind that small-screen facade of cheery, perfectly coiffed, telegenic hosts lurks a sinister cauldron of sex, greed, cheating and inappropriate behavior that occasionally rears its head, exposing its ugly underbelly to America.
Case in point: Mike Richards, who lasted all of nine days as the new host of “Jeopardy!” before quitting on Friday, August 20 amidst controversy over past misogynistic comments and other lawsuits. He remains with TV’s top-rated game show as an executive producer. Go figure.
The “Jeopardy!” kerfuffle is just the latest in a long line of nefarious incidents that have plagued game shows since Dwight Eisenhower was president. Here are four more.
The ‘Quiz Show’ quagmire
In the 1950s, the infamous “Quiz Show Scandals” rocked the industry and almost destroyed the genre after word broke that producers of the NBC game show “Twenty-One” ensured that Ivy League golden boy Charles Van Doren (who was in on the plan) defeated schleppy, Queens-born trivia wunderkind Herb Stempel, who’d already won nearly $70,000 in prize money and was set to take down fan-favorite Van Doren.
The “Twenty-One” scandal was later the basis for the 1994 movie “Quiz Show,” starring Ralph Fiennes as Van Doren and John Turturro as Stempel.
A dangerous ‘Dating Game’
In 1978, Rodney Alcala — armed with shaggy hair and a disarming smile — appeared on the popular syndicated daytime show “The Dating Game.” As “Bachelor No. 1,” he was introduced by host Jim Lange as “a successful photographer who got his start when his father found him in the darkroom at the age of 13.” Alcala vied with two other “eligible bachelors” for a date with contestant Cheryl Bradshaw — who, hidden behind a wall, asked them leading questions as per the show’s titillating format.
When Bradshaw asked Alcala her first question, “What’s your best time?” he smiled and answered “The best time is night. Nighttime.” He won the game — but Bradshaw refused to go out with him because she found him creepy. One of Alcala’s fellow “Dating Game” bachelors, Jed Mills, told CNN in 2010 that Alcala “became very unlikable and rude and imposing as though he was trying to intimidate … he got creepier and more negative.”
The following year, in 1979, Alcala was arrested, and later convicted, for killing a 12-year-old girl who was on her way to ballet class in Huntington Beach, Calif., one of at least eight murders he eventually admitted to, including two in New York (of a restaurant heiress and a TWA flight attendant, for which he was put on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted list in 1971). He was suspected in many more crimes.
The serial killer, who was serving several life sentences, died in prison in July of “unspecified causes” at the age of 77. How he fooled the “Dating Game” producers, or passed a background check (if there even was one), remains a mystery.
Gaming ‘Press Your Luck’
Quirky “Press Your Luck” contestant Michael Larson didn’t break any rules — technically — but his run on the CBS daytime game show raised a lot of eyebrows and forced the show, and others, to change the way in which they programmed their computers.
Larson, 34, bearded and wearing a thrifted sports coat, appeared on “Press Your Luck” in 1984 to try his hand at winning big dough on the game, in which contestants answered questions by buzzing in on a big board, hoping to avoid the dreaded “Whammy,” which would take away all their winnings up to that point.
Larson landed on a “Whammy” the first time around but then, in a blur of answers and lightning-quick buzzes, he won a total of $110,000 in one game, leaving show host Peter Tomarken and fellow contestants Ed Long and Janie Litras Dakin nearly speechless.
“Here’s this guy who needed grooming and bought a sports coat at a thrift store on his way in [to play the game]. I just knew I could beat him. I was there to win,” Dakin told The Post in 2019. “As it went on I was thinking, ‘Is this “Candid Camera” or something? There’s something wrong here, come on.’ ”
It turned out that Larson, an unemployed ice cream truck driver, had spent the previous year studying tapes of “Press Your Luck” episodes on his VCR (remember those?), memorizing the game board’s five cash-winning patterns and, in each pattern, where a “Whammy” would pop up and take away his cash.
CBS thought about stripping Larson of his winnings, but allowed him to keep the $110,000, since he didn’t break any rules. No one in their wildest dreams envisioned someone memorizing the metrics of the electronic game board. “Press Your Luck” retooled its game board, supposedly making it impossible to memorize, and other shows using like-minded electronics followed suit.
In the ensuing years, Larson lost most of his “Press Your Luck” bounty in a succession of get-rich-quick schemes. When he died in 1999 from throat cancer, at the age of 48, he was being investigated for fraud by the SEC, FBI and IRS.
Wrongful actions at ‘The Price Is Right’
Broadcasting legend Bob Barker’s “good guy” facade as an animal advocate — he closed every show with his catchphrase, “And remember folks, always spay or neuter your pets!” — was irretrievably dented in 1994, when “Barker Beauty” and Playboy centerfold Dian Parkinson sued him for a reported $8 million for alleged sexual harassment following an unlawful termination.
In her lawsuit, Parkinson, who’d been with the show for 18 years, claimed that she’d been forced to have oral sex with Barker in his dressing room “about twice a week” for three-and-a-half years, “first by using force and later by other means of coercion,” according to an Associated Press report. She also claimed in court docs that she had intercourse with Barker six or eight times, fearing she would be fired if she refused.
Barker, who retired in 2007 and is now 97, countered that she’d initiated “a little hanky-panky” and copped to having a consensual relationship with Parkinson for a year and a half. A judge dismissed the wrongful termination charge in the suit but let the sexual harassment charge stand. Then, in 1995, Parkinson dropped the whole shebang, citing medical stress related to the lawsuit (a bleeding ulcer) and her inability to afford a costly legal battle.
Still, such “hanky-panky” on the set appeared to be widespread.
“We’d come out in swimsuits and bikinis — who wasn’t going to look?” former “Price Is Right” model Kathleen Bradley told The Post about her time on the show, which ended in 2000 and which she chronicled in her 2014 book, “Backstage at ‘The Price Is Right’: Memoirs of a Barker Beauty.”
“I remember CBS put out a memo — they had what they called ‘the eight second rule.’ If, for some reason, a guy was looking at you for more than eight seconds, it was considered sexual harassment.
“Some of the backstage guys would rub up against you if you were coming in for the next scene. One guy was so fresh he got a Polaroid camera, got down on the ground and started taking pictures up our skirts … but after a period of time he became one of my best friends,” added Bradley, now 70.
Still, she said, “Bob [Barker] never did anything to me that was offensive or demeaning.”
In the wake of the Parkinson lawsuit the floodgates opened, and Barker faced a flood of litigation. In 1995, “Barker Beauty” model Holly Hallstrom left the show and then sued Barker, claiming she was fired for not defending him in the Parkinson drama — and claiming he asked her to spread false information about Parkinson. Barker countersued for slander and the case was settled out of court.
In October 2000, Bradley and Janice Pennington — an original “Barker Beauty” — were let go from the show. Pennington, who was knocked unconscious in 1988 by a “Price Is Right” camera, signed a confidential settlement. Bradley received an undisclosed monetary settlement.
“Bob became such a bitter guy if you didn’t suck up to him,” said Bradley. “His ego got the best of him.”