LOS ANGELES — Broadcasting pioneer Ralph Edwards, who spotlighted stars and ordinary people as host of the popular 1950s show “This Is Your Life,” died Wednesday of heart failure. He was 92.
Edwards, whose career as producer and host included “Truth or Consequences” and “People’s Court,” died in his sleep in his West Hollywood home, publicist Justin Seremet said.
Edwards first hit it big in radio in 1940 with “Truth or Consequences,” a novelty show in which contestants who failed to answer trick questions — the “truth” — had to suffer “the consequences” by performing some elaborate stunt.
Then came television. The Federal Communications Commission approved commercial broadcasts beginning on July 1, 1941, after a few years of experimental broadcasts, and NBC’s New York station was the first to make the changeover.
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“Amazingly enough, I did ‘Truth or Consequences’ on television in July 1941. It was the first commercial show for NBC,” Edwards recalled.
“A 10-second commercial was $9,” he said.
The United States’ entry into World War II five months later disrupted TV’s progress. “Truth or Consequences,” which prospered on radio in the interim, returned to television in 1950.
Earlier that same year, the citizens of little Hot Springs, N.M., voted 1,294-295 to change the town’s name to Truth or Consequences. Edwards had promised to broadcast the radio show from the town that agreed to the change.
“In those days, nothing seemed impossible,” he once said.
“Truth or Consequences” later launched the career of Bob Barker, tabbed by Edwards as master of ceremonies in 1956. Barker, who went on to host “The Price Is Right,” on Wednesday hailed Edwards as “one of the finest men I have ever met and a gentleman about whom I have never heard a word of criticism.”
Surprising celebrities and ordinary people
“This Is Your Life” also was born on radio and then migrated to television, running on NBC-TV from 1952 to 1961. It featured guests, many of them celebrities, who were lured in on a ruse, then surprised by Edwards announcing, “This is your life!” Relatives and old friends then would be brought on to reminisce about the guest.
Among the people he caught unaware were Marilyn Monroe, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Bob Hope, Andy Griffith, Buster Keaton, Barbara Eden, Bette Davis, Shirley Jones, Jayne Mansfield and Carol Channing.
But not all guests were entertainers. A 1953 episode profiled Hanna Bloch Kohner, a survivor of the Holocaust.
“At least half of our guests were ordinary people,” Edwards said. “In the beginning we didn’t use celebrities at all. But when we did, I think it humanized the stars and gave them more appeal.”
Edwards said he and his staff used all kinds of subterfuge to surprise guests. Some would run away and be pulled back, all in fun, but broadcaster Lowell Thomas made headlines when he refused to play along on a 1959 show.
“He saw instantly what was going on, and nobody puts anything over on Lowell Thomas,” Edwards recalled years later. “He tore the show apart. I said, ‘You’re going to enjoy this,’ and he said, ‘I doubt that very much.”’
“His third-grade teacher said he knew every rock and rill in the Rockies. And he said, ‘Yeah, and I knew every saloon, too,”’ Edwards recalled. “The rating kept going up during the show as people called their friends to tune in.”
According to the reference book “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows,” one person was off limits for the surprise treatment: Edwards himself. He told staff members he would fire every one of them if they put him on.
Both “Truth” and “This Is Your Life” have periodically returned to television in syndicated form.
Just last week, it was announced that a new version of “This is Your Life,” with Regis Philbin (“Live with Regis and Kelly”) as host, is planned by ABC. Philbin previously was host of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” for the network.
Creator of numerous shows
Over the years, Edwards kept himself busy as a producer.
Edwards had a hand in other shows, producing or creating “Name That Tune,” “Cross Wits,” “Superior Court,” “It Could Be You,” “Place the Face,” “About Faces,” “Funny Boners,” “End of the Rainbow,” “Who in the World,” “The Woody Woodbury Show” and “Wide Country.” In the ’80s, Ralph Edwards Productions’ show “The People’s Court” made a star of retired Judge Joseph A. Wapner.
“We’ve seen many changes and enjoyed them all,” Edwards said in a 1999 interview. “I still find ’live’ the most exciting, particularly for my type of shows.”
Edwards broke into radio in 1929 in Oakland as a 16-year-old high school student.
He worked at KROW and KFRC in San Francisco while attending college at the University of California at Berkeley.
“The changes in both radio and television are mind-boggling,” Edwards said. He recalled that until 1948 his radio version of “Truth or Consequences” was done twice each Saturday, once for the east coast and again three hours later for the West Coast.
“We would use the same script, but all new contestants,” he said.
Edwards said he went back to Truth or Consequences, N.M., dozens of times over the years.
Besides changing the name, townspeople made Edwards an honorary member of the Sheriff’s Posse. The name continues a half-century later. Periodic efforts to reverse the change failed.
“I am truly proud of my namesake city and have enjoyed a wonderful association throughout the years,” he said.
He also appeared in several motion pictures: “Seven Days Leave,” “Radio Stars on Parade,” “Bamboo Blonde,” “Beat the Band,” “I’ll Cry Tomorrow,” “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round” and “Radio Stars of 1937.”
Edwards’ wife, Barbara, died in 1993 after 53 years of marriage. Their children are a son, Gary, who worked with Edwards; and two daughters, Christine and Laurie.
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