(b. 24 January 1915 in Sacramento, California; d. 18 December 1992 in New York City), the most successful creator and producer of game shows in the history of television.
Goodson, the “king of television game shows,” was the only child of Abraham and Fanny Gross Goodman, Jewish immigrants from Russia. Although lacking formal education themselves, and suffering the financial woes of the Great Depression, they encouraged and helped their son to work his way through the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated in 1937, cum laude and a member of Phi Beta Kappa, intending to become an attorney. Hard times, however, dictated a job before law school.
He found work through a friend as an announcer at KFRC, a San Francisco radio station, taking on the surname “Goodson.” Within two years Goodson had created and produced his first game show, Pop the Question, which required contestants to throw darts at balloons as a way of selecting categories, though this stunt could only be describede to the radio audience. In 1941 Goodson moved to New York City, hoping to break into network radio. He found work in radio direction, creating a program called Appointment with Life, a dramatic radio series based on the supposed case histories of a marriage counselor. He also wrote and directed the dramatic spots on the radio variety hour hosted by Kate Smith. From 1944 to 1945 he directed the U.S. Treasury Department radio show The Treasury Salute.
In 1946 in New York he formed a corporate partnership with Bill Todman, a salesman and accountant who could take care of the business end of a company that would specialize in game show production, freeing Goodson to focus on creative work. The company’s first major sale was a radio quiz, Winner Take All, which in 1946 pioneered the use of live, on-air contestant telephone calls. But the money in the broadcasting business was moving toward television, and by the 1950s Mark Goodson-Bill Todman Productions turned its attention to this new medium. The two men took equal credits on screen for a Goodson—Todman Production, but Todman’s role was strictly in the front office. After Todman’s death in 1979, the studio was renamed Mark Goodson Productions.
Mark Goodson—Bill Todman Productions ultimately supplied more than five hundred game series to the ever-expanding medium of television. Goodson’s extraordinary portfolio of national hits included such programs as What’s My Line? (1950-1967), I’ve Got a Secret (1952-1967), To Tell the Truth (1956-1967; 1969-1977), Concentration (1958-1973), Password (1961-1975), Family Feud (launched in 1976 and still on the air in 200), Beat the Clock, (1950-1958), and The Price Is Right (launched in 1956 and still on the air in 2000). In all, he produced more than 42,000 half-hour episodes of such shows. At the end of the twentieth century, not a day had gone by on American television since 1950 without a Goodson program having aired. Many of the shows were licensed for production in various languages, gaining distribution around the world.
The technique underlying Goodson’s dominance of the genre lay in his emphasis on amusing gimmicks and snappy patter, as opposed to the excitements and tensions of big cash awards. Contestants on What’s My Line?, for example (where four panelists tried to guess the professions of contestants by asking them yes-or-no questions), could not win more than $50 (and were often given that much even if they failed to win it). Instead, the show depended on the entertaining chatter of its panelists, including such New York raconteurs as the publisher Bennett Cerf and the gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen.
If the What’s My Line? panel seemed in dress and manner as if they had just stopped by for some parlor-room fun after taking in a Broadway show, contestants on Beat the Clock were more likely to be outfitted in cheap plastic raincoats in anticipation of throwing cream pies; the idea behind this Goodson daytime show, built around physical comedy, was to pull off a series of stunts as precious seconds ticked away on a giant clock. Plenty of eggs were broken and balloons popped. Once again, cash prizes were not large enough to be a factor in the show’s popularity.
Goodson made forays into other areas of show business, producing such television shows as The Rebel, a Western, and The Richard Boone Show, a weekly series of original dramas performed by Boone’s repertory company. Other business interests, fueled by the immense profits of Good-son’s game-show factory, included extensive real estate holdings and ownership, through Goodson Newspapers, Inc., of more than twenty small city dailies and weeklies. A generous philanthropist, Goodson gave millions of dollars to charities and nonprofit institutions. A wing of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles bears his name.
Goodson received numerous Emmy awards over the years, including one for lifetime achievement in 1990. In 1993 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He was wed three times (to Bluma Neveleffin 1941, to Virginia McDavid, and to Suzanne Waddell) but each marriage ended in divorce. He had two children with Bluma and one with Virginia. He maintained dual residences in New York City and Los Angeles for most of his life. He died in New York of pancreatic cancer. He is buried in Hillside Cemetery in Culver City, California.
As a result of his “all for fun” strategy, Goodson was the only major game show producer to survive the quiz show scandals of the late 1950s. Nearly every other game show on television was knocked off the air when it was discovered, in congressional hearings, that producers were “fixing” the outcomes of their big-money quizzes to capture high ratings. Emerging clean from the investigations, Goodson had a virtual lock on the genre for the balance of the twentieth century, introducing new programs and reviving and recycling his trademark properties into updated versions, some of which eclipsed the success of the originals. It was not until years after his death that network game shows once again attracted serious public attention, but this revival was directly tied to the introduction of million-dollar prizes. No one has ever been able to effectively duplicate the Goodson formula on a comparable scale.
The University of California, Los Angeles, Film and Television Archive maintains the Mark Goodson Collection of six hundred kinescopes of television game shows produced by Goodson— Todman Productions between 1950 and 1967. Goodson provided the introduction to David Schwartz and Fred Wostbrock, The Encyclopedia of TV Game Shows (3d ed., 1999). See also Mark Duka, “From What’s My Line? to Child’s Play, the Game’s the Thing for Him,” New York Times (5 Dec. 1982), and Maxene Fabe, TV Game Shows (1979). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 19 Dec. 1992). Goodson discusses his career as a game show producer with host Steven H. Scheuer in the video recording All About TV, produced by WNYC-television in New York (1985). Gil Fates talks about Goodson in an interview with David Marc (1999 sound recording held at the Steven H. Scheuer Television History Collection, Syracuse University Library, Syracuse, New York).