Vintage TV: Bill Cullen

(First posted 11 September 2008; updated 12 July 2013.) 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 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 always made me think 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 the 1950s and the 1980s you almost certainly saw Bill Cullen on TV. Here’s a complete episode of Three on a Match from February of 1974 that shows 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.

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. This is one of my favorite Bill Cullen moments, from To Tell the Truth.

So lasting was Bill’s 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.

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8 responses to “Vintage TV: Bill Cullen”

  1. J P Avatar

    I think Cullen was my favorite game show host too.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It was certainly easy to see him, he seemed to always be on somewhere!

  2. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    And most people were not aware at the time that Cullen was not very mobile. He contracted polio as a child and it severely limited his abilities as an adult. Directors were careful not to have Bill walk much on camera.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Funny you should bring that up. Just yesterday my YouTube feed served me up this bit that Bill recorded for Good Morning America. At the end was some raw footage that included him walking. I believe it’s the only time I’ve seen him take more than two steps on camera! I’ve cued it up to that point in the video.

  3. Ted Kappest Avatar

    I remember that I thought Bill Cullen that my brother and me thought Bill Cullen was funny when we were kids. We used to watch any game show that he hosted. Back then during the daytime the choice on TV was either a game show or a soap opera.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      One of my leisure activities is to watch old game shows on YouTube. Bill Cullen was very funny back in the day. In his later career, I’d say after the early-mid 1970s, he was less funny and more avuncular in his presentation.

  4. Russ Ray Avatar

    Being a child of the 80s, my favorite was always Bob Barker and the Price is Right, mostly because their sets were so loud and crazy and so were the contestants. In fact, the shows like Hollywood Squares and $25,000 Pyramid were my favorite because the sets and themes were elaborate. Bill Cullen hosted a show called Blockbusters that I remember during that era and I think he was a guest on many panel shows.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Bill hosted one of the iterations of the Pyramid show! It was a nighttime version of the $25,000 Pyramid.

      I remember Blockbusters clearly and used to watch it (in the summers) when it was first run.

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