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Ecks Factor: Ode to Match Game

Two weeks ago, a near and dear part of my childhood passed away. The world lost one of the greatest game show hosts of any generation in Richard Dawson. Just a few columns ago, I talked extensively about the shows that shaped my younger days, and Match Game was one of them. Dawson appeared regularly for multiple seasons in the bottom tier, smack-dab in the center, normally between two females that could range from Betty White to Joyce Bulifant to Fannie Flagg. Your grandmother would be impressed by those names I just dropped.

Of course, Dawson went on to host Family Feud in the 1970s, not so much sneaking kisses as full on making out with the female contestants in every show. And sometimes there were three or four females in just one group! What a man. Of course, if Steve Harvey or Drew Carey or any other game show host pulled this off today, sexual harassment charges would be swift. In the 1970s, it wasn't so much accepted as it was just the way things were, at least on the Feud set.

Dawson's career began in the early 1960s, but not until Hogan's Heroes debuted in 1965 did audiences first get to know him. His role as Col. Peter Newkirk lasted for the six year run of the sitcom. In the 1970s, between Match Game appearances, Dawson took part in Love, American Style, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, and guest spots on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Dawson's acting career ended in 1987 with a role in the Stephen King adaptation The Running Man.

Family Feud hosted by Dawson was a classic in game show history, but it just doesn't hold a candle to the single greatest game show of all time: Match Game. Its concept was simple: two contestants were asked a question each for each round (of which there were two). For example, each question would tell a short story, and ended, normally, with a "blank". The contestant had to fill in the blank. Sometimes it was a serious answer, other times the contestants (and celebrities) went for the humorous answer. Then the person who matched the most celebrity panelists (of which there were six) went on to a round worth up to $10,000.

The typical celebrity panel included Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly in Seats 2 and 3 on the upper tier, with Richard Dawson in the middle seat on the bottom tier. Then rotating guests would fill the remaining chairs, including Gary Burghoff, Nipsey Russell, Bill Daly and McLean Stevenson, among others. In fact, in my opinion, McLean Stevenson is best remembered for his oddball answers on Match Game rather than his three-season turn as Henry Blake on M*A*S*H, another classic of 70s television. Upon his departure in the mid-70s to host Feud, Dawson was himself replaced by a wide variety of faces best remembered by those that lived in the 70s.

All of this mayhem was watched over by Gene Rayburn, a classic example of what a game show host should be: professional-looking, intelligent, witty, and quickly able to ridicule contestants for answers so bad, they should be booted immediately from the show's set. Rayburn never let the mood drop. He never let predictability take over. He never let the show become stale, even when they accepted stale celebrities not at all comfortable with the loose atmosphere.

Match Game was the anti-game show. On Price is Right, you went on to win a prize, get cheers from the crowd, listen to Bob Barker give you words of encouragement while explaining the rules and hopefully actually get the prize you were playing for. If you didn't, a funny sound played, the crowd ahh'd and you were left with the big wheel. On Match Game, you could literally be made fun of by six celebrities and the host and laughed at/booed by those in attendance. Many the stone-faced contestants left steaming, unable to comprehend why their answers were so god-awful bad or why they deserved such harsh criticism from people that never had as much fun as they did when on Match Game.

Unfortunately, Match Game was a product of its time. It was the perfect storm. In its prime, the show had Rayburn, Somers, Reilly and Dawson. It didn't matter who else filled the three remaining seats, as long as the foursome remained in tact. Even when Dawson left, they had the advantage. As time went on and ratings went down, things began deteriorating. It couldn't last forever with this group. Eventually, these people would go elsewhere, the network would want fresher faces and the format would be changed. Luckily, that didn't happen before the show ultimately was cancelled.

Then, someone decided to have the bright idea to revive the show in 1990, with a few familiar faces participating on occasion (Reilly was a regular, but wasn't the same without the rest of the gang), but it wasn't the same show. Sally Struthers and Brad Garrett are not Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly. Rayburn was nowhere to be found, despite showing interest in hosting. Producers had little interest in re-instating the then-72 year old Rayburn as host. Dawson had semi-retired. Match Game '90 was a shell of the original.

I won't even speak of the 1998-1999 revival.

The concept has been bounced around various networks in the last few years, but no takers are willing to try it out again. I'm not complaining. It won't be as fun. Match Game happened accidentally. It was originally a serious game show with little ad-libbing and fun to be had. It evolved into something more of a comedy show. A product of its time. The best have passed on, and if you're the religious type, you would hope that Match Game Heaven is complete with Dawson's recent and unfortunate passing.

As for Dawson, he went on to host one last season of Family Feud in 1994, in the wake of previous host Ray Combs' unfortunate suicide. But like Match Game 90 to the original, it wasn't the same Dawson. Now married, he traded in kisses on the lips for polite handshakes. Understandably, the missus didn't want free kisses for her man. Understandably, he only remained with the show for one year.

So Richard, for your contributions to my childhood on Match Game and Family Feud, I sincerely thank you. You will be greatly missed.

RIP Richard Dawson

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