Saturday afternoon, I was watching the 41-0 thrashing of Tennessee by Georgia on CBS and waiting for the barrage of callers to talk shows who want to fire the Vol coaches.
Just before the game ended, I received a message that I knew would be coming at any time. Monty Hall, the legendary co-creator and original host of Let’s Make a Deal, had died at 96.
Eighteen months ago, Monty’s agent Fred Wostbrock told me the game show icon’s health was declining. “He’s on dialysis three times a week and he’s lost about 60 pounds,” Fred said. Little did we know that Monty would outlive his agent, who died late last year of cancer.
Like many of you, I grew up watching Monty preside over the world’s biggest daily costume party on the show he co-created with his partner Steve Hatos, Let’s Make a Deal. I went even further back with him to the living board game he hosted from 1960 to 1962, Video Village on CBS. To this day, baby boomers my age remember fondly Village but can’t remember the show’s title.
As a kid from South Georgia who looked on Monty and several of the other classic game show hosts as TV icons, I never dreamed I would meet the man, much less emcee a testimonial event at which he was honored. More on that later.
I was privileged to know the man for 17 years. Another game show legend, Tom Kennedy, put me together with Monty in 2000 at the height of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire craze.
He was straightforward with me to every question about his career and the game show business. He was totally candid about why he moved Let’s Make a Deal from NBC to ABC after five successful years in 1968 (an NBC executive refused to give Deal a nighttime slot; ABC was glad to offer it).
Before that interview ended, Monty said: “I could talk to you for two hours. You know a lot about our business. This is one of the few interviews I’ve ever given where someone hasn’t used the word ‘mindless’ several times.” I figured that would probably be my one-and-done session with TV’s Big Dealer.
Over the next couple of years as game shows came and went in prime time in the wake of the huge success of Millionaire, I would periodically hear the voice of Carol Andrews, Monty’s administrative assistant, on the other end of my phone. “Monty wants to talk to you about something,” she would say.
Monty was a daily reader of my TVgameshows.net online page. The something he would want to discuss was usually either a new game show or what I thought about a new emcee.
“Other than having a personality that people like, what do you think is the most important characteristic of a game show host?” he asked me one day. My response was: “He needs to be a good listener. If he doesn’t listen to what the contestant says, he’ll never be engaged with the contestant and miss some choice moments.”
Monty answered right back, “That is exactly right.” The new emcee he was asking about was one he was considering for a revival of Let’s Make a Deal in 2005. “I thought he had all the right tools we were looking for,” Monty said, “but I watched him three days in a row. He doesn’t listen to a thing anybody says.”
He and Hatos came up with Let’s Make a Deal in 1962 but the networks weren’t interested. Monty took the concept to civic clubs. Instead of boxes and doors to hide prizes which couldn’t be brought into a hotel ballroom, Monty used envelopes that either contained a card with a nice prize or a “zonk,” one of the gag prizes.
“We knew we had the right concept because these businessmen were having a blast playing the game,” he told me. “It was all based on gambling, taking a risk on a sure thing or going all or nothing.”
The production partners finally convinced an NBC executive to go along to one of their Rotary extravaganzas. That was enough to earn them development money to flesh out the concept in a large rehearsal hall.
“The ratings weren’t terribly good in the first nine months,” Monty said. “We were on opposite Password, which was the biggest hit game show on daytime TV at the time. So, NBC moved us to 1:30. We started gaining audience and eventually became the first show to pass As the World Turns in the ratings.”
He had to cope with some unexpected occurrences during the first 18 months of the show. Let’s Make a Deal was television’s first show in which winning female contestants grabbed the host for what, at times, were physically-threatening hugs. One woman accidentally pushed Monty down the stairs of the NBC Burbank studio. He suffered torn cartilage from the joy and merriment.
He missed three weeks of the show because of injuries suffered in an auto accident. Bill Leyden, who hosted Hall’s Your First Impression, subbed.
Monty did not like one insertion NBC placed in the show near the end of the first 39 weeks. With early ratings stagnant, the network opted to do a week of shows with celebrities playing for studio audience members and home viewers. The segments fell flat. “Let’s Make a Deal is not a show about celebrities. It’s a show about average people from all over the country,” he said.
Until Let’s Make a Deal, NBC had not aired a 1:30 p.m. show since the Chicago-based Club 60 in the mid-1950s. The ratings gradually climbed and Monty as America’s top trader presided over the linchpin show in the NBC daytime lineup.
A nighttime version of Let’s Make a Deal in the spring and summer of 1967 rose to number four in the ratings, beating both The FBI and The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights. Monty thought it was a sure thing to return in January as a midseason replacement at night.
“You know what I was told? I was told by an NBC executive, ‘Oh, we don’t schedule a show like yours during the regular season. You may have done well in the summer but we think a show like that is beneath us to put on in the fall and winter.’ That was the first shot that led to us going to ABC,” Monty said.
In 1968, the show switched networks. The time slot was the same. One of the few changes was a reduction in the number of traders on the floor from 42 to 31. Otherwise, everything stayed the same.
NBC clearly miscalculated the power of Deal. Within six months, the entire ABC daytime lineup—especially afternoons—enjoyed ratings increases while NBC’s schedule declined. Opposite Deal on ABC, NBC tried everything from soap opera Hidden Faces, Words and Music, Joe Garagiola’s Memory Game, Life with Linkletter, and Leyden’s final game show before his death, You’re Putting Me On. Nothing worked.
Let’s Make a Deal received the coveted nighttime slot, which continued for three years. Its most successful slot was during two years on Saturdays at 7:30, where it formed a one-hour block with The Newlywed Game leading into The Lawrence Welk Show. When ABC dropped the evening version in 1971, Monty went into nighttime syndication with a twice weekly Deal.
After 14 years of big deals and boxes of Creamettes, the original Let’s Make a Deal finally came to an end. The show returned in syndicated versions in 1980-81 and 1984-86. Remakes in 1990 and 2002 on NBC failed in no small part because Monty felt he was too old to host the show. Younger emcees bombed.
In the process, the Hatos-Hall company became a game show factory. As packagers, their most successful entry was one of television’s fastest-moving quiz shows, Split Second, which ran from 1972 to 1975 on ABC and should have lasted much longer. Cancellation was a huge disappointment for Monty.
“It broke my heart when ABC canceled that show,” Monty said. “Our lead-in show had been doing poorly for more than a year. We always picked up audience and stations wanted Split Second for a nighttime version. ABC wouldn’t give us the right to do it and then they let us go. I always felt like they threw the baby out with the bath water because they had a new executive who came in and wanted to remake daytime.”
Monty could erupt over what he felt was unfair reporting. When Cleveland Amory reviewed the nighttime version of Let’s Make a Deal in TV Guide in 1970, Amory largely lampooned and trashed the show. Monty saw Amory at a Los Angeles Kings hockey game and went through the review point by point.
The first time I interviewed Monty, he told me the story of his beef with the debut issue of People magazine. A writer profiled him and the long success of Let’s Make a Deal. Two words in the story ruined the piece for Monty.
“The writer was detailing how I was picked to substitute for Jack Barry on Twenty-One in 1958, just a few months before the quiz scandals broke,” Monty said. “He wrote this: ‘Hall had no knowledge of the rigging of the show, he claims.’ When I saw those words ‘he claims,’ I saw red. I called my lawyer and I wanted to sue them. He told me to forget it. He said, ‘All of your fans know you didn’t have anything to do with it. Besides, you’d spend more money taking them to court than you’d get out of them.’ So, I let it go….but it still irritated me for months.”
One subject he never wanted to revisit was the 2003 NBC revival of Let’s Make a Deal in prime time. He licensed the format to the network on which the game originally aired. A decision was made to periodically bring Monty back to do a classic deal with contestants from the ’60s and ’70s version of the show.
The first 10 minutes of the show convinced Monty he had made a big mistake. Billy Bush, who was an up and coming NBC personality, was given the keys to the car as host but appeared to be hopelessly miscast. The producers from the syndicated show Blind Date were brought in to run the show. Obviously, they had a mindset to turn Let’s Make a Deal into the same kind of vulgarity they dished out on late night syndication. The opening deal—which was an outright copy of a segment from a cable game Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush—was as close to an X-rated segment as possible on network television. People who gathered with their children to watch the show at 7:00 in the Central and Mountain time zones were horrified. Nielsen bore out that reaction. Between the first 15 minutes and the final quarter hour, the audience tuned out by more than half. This was not the Let’s Make a Deal they were expecting, nor the one Monty thought he had licensed. As one reviewer wrote, “You could hear the sounds all over the country of people saying, ‘There’s another one gone bad.'”
I called Monty the day after the premiere. He did not want to talk about it. Finally, a couple of years later, he told me: “I hope we can bring back Let’s Make a Deal eventually—-but I’m never going to let anyone else do to my baby what those guys did at NBC.”
After the original Deal ran its course, Monty emceed a few unsuccessful shows: It’s Anybody’s Guess, The All-New Beat the Clock and a revival of one of the best quizzes ever, Split Second. Yet, he was one of the best businessmen in television and he knew how to close a deal with a network, not to coin a pun.
One of Monty’s favorite stories came unexpectedly in 1972. “I’m in the office and the phone rings. The voice said, ‘Please hold the line for Jack Benny.'” Monty said. “I nearly fell off my chair. I’m thinking Jack Benny! He was one of my idols. Why would he be calling me? I’d never met Jack Benny.”
Benny told Monty he was a regular watcher of Let’s Make a Deal and an admirer of the emcee’s work. “Of course, that made me feel great,” he said. Jack then told Monty of something he detected during Deal episodes.
“Monty, I notice you never take a closeup, unless you’re pitching to a commercial,” Benny said. “The closeups are always on the contestants. If you’re on camera, it’s a two-shot. That’s the same way we’ve always done my show. Except during the monologue, we save the closeups for the guests or the other characters because they’re the ones who need to be spotlighted.”
Said Monty: “I can’t believe Jack Benny was actually noticing something that technical about our show. We always put the closeups on the contestants because they’re the stars of the show and it also milks the drama when they’re trying to decide whether to risk everything.”
Jack invited Monty to lunch the following week. Monty said, as would be the case for any of us, the day was one he would never forget.
In 2005, I had the joy of emceeing the Game Show Congress Legends Luncheon in Glendale, Cal., at which Monty, Jack Narz and Tom Kennedy were honored. That remains one of the greatest thrills and most surreal experiences ever for a South Georgia boy. You never see yourself standing alongside a TV hero.
When CBS called in 2009 to seek a replacement for the aging Guiding Light, Stefan Hatos had long since passed away. Monty told the network the key was finding the right emcee who understood the contestants were the stars of the show.
After several hopefuls were auditioned and ruled out, Wayne Brady came into the picture. Monty had seen him on Whose Line Is It Anyway? Before the debut, Monty called me in my Union University office.
“I had Wayne come out to my house,” Monty said. “I told him we have three important questions to answer. First is: do you want to do Let’s Make a Deal? The second is: do you think you can do Let’s Make a Deal? The last question is: do I think you can do Let’s Make a Deal?”
Brady was hired. Eight years later, the show is still having a healthy afternoon run. Until her death, Monty split every royalty check from CBS right down the middle with Stefan Hatos’ widow.
Monty lost his wife Marilyn in June. Most people who knew him did not think he would last much longer.
I talked to him a couple of years ago and he was a bit wistful. “Steve, the bad thing about getting old is that all my friends are dying,” he said. I had never pondered that until I began to lose some of my long-time friends.
He was proud of the success of his children. Daughter Joanna is a Tony-winner for the play Into the Woods. His other daughter Sharon was executive producer of The Good Wife on CBS and now has her own production company. Son Richard is a long-time co-producer of The Amazing Race.
Monty did two hour-long telephone sessions with my media students at Union. I will never forget his key words of wisdom to them: “Whatever you do in television, radio, or any media, always give back to your community. Whatever success you have will be partially from your talent but also because people watch you. Always give back.”
He told them why giving back was important.
“I couldn’t afford to go to college,” he said. “One day, one of my father’s customers came into his store. He told me, ‘Young man, you need to go to college. I’m going to pay for your education. I just want you to do three things in return: one, to pay me back when you can afford to; two, keep up your grades; three, whatever you do, always remember to give back to others in your community.’ I never forgot those words.”
The son of a Canadian butcher gave back to us over and over again. He left us with a television classic that has appeared in six consecutive decades. He gave millions of dollars to charities and raised millions more for children’s hospitals across the world.
I had a chance to know Monty Hall, the man, and not just the game show host. He was one of the nicest people I ever met and you would have liked him. That is the simplest and highest tribute I can pay. I think I’ll go see what’s behind Door Number 3.