Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Bill Cullen

The show was a yawnfest, just boring as all get out, but I watched it every weekday afternoon anyway.

Bill Cullen at the helm of Three on a Match

It was Three on a Match, a game show that aired on NBC from 1971 to 1974. Part of what made it boring, given that I was four years old, was that its rules were complicated. I could never figure out what was going on! I started watching this dull but confusing program because it was on against Let’s Make a Deal on ABC, which my mother could not abide, and As the World Turns on CBS, which I could not abide. But I kept watching because its congenial host reminded me of my grandfather, and I rather liked imagining seeing my grandfather on TV every weekday afternoon. The grandfatherly host was Bill Cullen, the most versatile and prolific game-show host ever, who worked almost non-stop doing them on radio and television for 40 years. If you were breathing at any time between between the 1950s and the 1980s you almost certainly saw Bill Cullen on TV. Here are a few minutes from a faded copy of Three on a Match that show how the game was played.

Bill’s first TV game show was Winner Take All in 1952, and his last was The Joker’s Wild in 1986. In between, he did more than twenty others, including the original The Price is Right, I’ve Got a Secret, Eye Guess, To Tell the Truth, Winning Streak, The $25,000 Pyramid, Pass the Buck, Password Plus while regular host Allen Ludden was ill, Chain Reaction, Blockbusters, Child’s Play, and Hot Potato.

I outgrew my grandfather projection issues and for years changed the channel when I saw fuddy-duddy old Bill Cullen. But when I got (and became addicted to) Game Show Network on cable in the 1990s, I saw that not only did Bill Cullen handle every show as if he was born to host it, but he was also funny. If you clicked any of the show names above, you saw clips of some of his finest and funniest moments. So lasting was his game-show legacy that it is said that when the US version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was being developed, producers wanted to tap Cullen to host it – until they learned that he had been dead for eight years.

Last updated on 24 December 2019 by Jim Grey

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