Hello, everyone. With Monopoly Millionaires’ Club premiering this weekend over most of the country (and reruns starting on GSN this Tuesday), I thought it would be nice to interview one of the original lottery game show hosts. Before there was Illinois Instant Riches, there was $100,000 Fortune Hunt. It was seen all over Illinois and throughout most of the country on Superstation WGN from 1989-1994. The original host was Jeff Coopwood. Let’s meet him, shall we?
Greg Palmer: Hi, Jeff. Based on what I’ve read on Wikipedia, broadcasting seems to be in your DNA. Would you like to explain that to our audience?
Jeff Coopwood: Never believe what you read on Wikipedia! 🙂 But it’s true that my parents had both been radio broadcasters. For almost five decades, my father, Jesse Coopwood, was a well respected and popular radio fixture in Gary, Indiana. He was also an important local figure during the civil rights movement and was instrumental in promoting the early
careers of Cannonball Adderley and Nancy Wilson; and most notably, the Jackson 5, before they were discovered by Motown. My mom, Louise Riley, had been a popular and successful radio personality at stations from Chicago, Il, to Texas, and finally, Miami, Fla. While there, because of her, I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time around people like Muhammad Ali, Gladys Knight, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Ike & Tina Turner, Diahann Carroll and so many others who came to town and interacted with her. But, while it’s fair to say that I am a second generation broadcaster, despite all that, it certainly was not something that was ever planned.
GP: How did you personally get involved? Was this a family business?
JC: My parents divorced when I was rather young and I lived with my mother. Although both parents had been broadcasters, my mother had at various times, also been a successful model, actress, charm school owner, and newspaper & magazine
owner and publisher. So there really was no particular “family business.” Also, from a very early age, I knew I wanted to be an actor. So, in college, I studied theatre. Because she understood it was not an easy career choice, my mother suggested that I should also have “something to fall back on.” So I also studied broadcasting, journalism, English,
speech and music. While in college, I worked on the college radio station and interned at several local radio stations and network affiliate television stations. So the broadcasting that I eventually did was really more of an offshoot from those experiences.
$100,000 Fortune Hunt:
GP: The one show that briefly put you on the radar of national game show fame was $100,000 Fortune Hunt for WGN (and their Superstation). How did you get involved with this show?
JC: It began as an audition. I had just returned from doing live theatre in Michigan and my agent called with information about an audition for a game show host. She asked if I was interested and I said yes. So I went through the audition process. They saw a few hundred people and, ultimately, I got the job.
GP: I was surprised to discover this, but the Hunt was not the first game show for the Illinois Lottery. Had you seen Super Shot?
JC: Actually, I’d never heard of the show until your mention of it. I know at the time, we believed we were the first television game show for the Illinois Lottery. But now I have seen clips on YouTube. (Those clips will be uploaded to our Facebook page. – GP)
GP: What was it like working on the show and with Linda Kollmeyer?
JC: I really enjoyed the rehearsal process before we went on-air. As the host, it was a lot to learn. I had to know the show’s rules and format and had to learn how to run the show and keep it interesting and entertaining. This presented a particular challenge, because, unlike most TV game shows, as the Lottery; we couldn’t pre-screen contestants and our game had to be a simple game of chance. We also shot live-to-tape, to air the next day. So we knew that the shows, as we shot them, would pretty much be aired as is. Besides the broadcasting component, for legal reasons, we also had to get it right the first time. That meant that I had to get it right the first time. While that added another layer of pressure, it also made it fun.
What was interesting about the two on-air talent, was that, coincidentally, at the time, we both had the same Chicago agent, Emilia Lorence. That became pivotal in many ways, both seen and unseen. The most glaring was that the original executive producer had envisioned a very “Vanna White” role for the co-host: visible, but largely unspeaking and
unmic’d during game play. But because we shared an agent, I thought it might be fun to mic her as well. We could then banter throughout the show. The executive producer, Les Roberts, the game show veteran who had been hired by the Lottery to create the show, thought it was a good idea. So that’s just what we did. I really enjoyed working with him.
He was a wonderful, gracious, and very sharp man, with no ego. He listened and was open to all good ideas, not just his own. But I honestly don’t think I would ever have suggested it, had the on-air talent not shared the same agent.
GP: On your YouTube page, you have a number of high-quality original broadcasts of the show, with commercials to boot. How and why did these end up on the Web?
JC: Several months ago, a former contestant contacted my Facebook fan page. I don’t personally have a Facebook account, but I have 2 Facebook pages under my name. One is, apparently, auto-generated from a Wikipedia article about me. The second was created by a few fans of my work on Star Trek.
The former contestant contacted my Facebook fan page, because she had been searching for a copy of her appearance on the game show and hadn’t been able to find it anywhere. She had contacted the Lottery, but was told they didn’t keep archived copies of the shows. She said the television station, WGN, apparently didn’t either. So she wrote to my
Facebook fan page as a last ditch effort to ask if I had copies. Like the show, her appearance was 25 years ago. But her kids had never seen it. She said she would very much like to be able to show it to them.
It took several months before her inquiry reached me; and a few more before I was able to address it. But I was able to find her episode and all the other episodes I had hosted, as well. So I posted it on YouTube, because I thought that would be the easiest way for her to have it and share it with her family & friends. I guess I was right. To my surprise, it had several hundred views in a very short amount of time. So I thought, perhaps I should post all the episodes, for all the other contestants and/or their families and friends. Some 25 years later, they or their families and/or friends may want to revisit their televised appearances. For many, the show was a special moment. In some cases, it was a transformative moment. I felt honored to have been a part of it then, and am just as honored to enable them and/or their families and friends to relive it now. Also, after 25 years, the reality is that some contestants have passed on. For their families and friends, it might be a nice memory to have.
GP: You left after the first season of the show and were replaced by a WLS-TV reporter, Mike Jackson. Why did you leave?
JC: Well Greg, you’re about to get an “exclusive.” Even after 25 years, this story has never been told. Frankly, because no one has ever asked. The honest answer, is that I left because the Lottery tried to re-write the terms of the on-air talents’ contracts. We had options for several years beyond the first year built into our original contracts. Those
negotiations were long and rather difficult. My agents and I wanted contracts that would only extend for a year or two. We wanted flexibility and not be locked into long term commitments, since we were dealing with several unknowns. But the Lottery insisted that we commit to longer terms and wanted to lock us into salaries and terms that were part
of a multi-year deal. Both sides went back and forth. In fact, the on-air talent, actually worked the first month of shows without signed contracts while negotiations continued. So we were, obviously, pretty relieved to finally agree to terms and get the deal signed. Then, when the first renewal period came up, after the first year, something happened. Instead of honoring the terms in our contracts for the annual renewals, which, again, the Lottery had wanted and won in negotiation; we were asked to tear up our annual guarantees and only renew in 6 month increments with no guarantees. The show was doing better than any of us had expected and I was fulfilling all the terms of my agreement. So I saw no benefit in renegotiating against myself. So I said no. My co-host said yes. Which was awkward, as we had the same agents. She remained and renegotiated. I did not. I performed the terms of my contract, and after the year, it expired. I did not want to work with people who wouldn’t honor the contracts they signed. For me, it was the right move then. It remains the right move now.
But it led to the only disappointing part of my tenure and departure. When I left the show, I moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, to begin the television and film career I had always planned when the show was done. Once I left, I literally left. But, I assume the Lottery feared potential embarrassment if I went public with the story that I left because they tried to get me to void my contract. Because what they did next was unbelievable. The Lottery fabricated a story that I was fired. According to that lie, I was fired for wearing, away from work, the suits that I wore on the show! But they had nothing to fear, because again, I had already left for LA. So, unfortunately, I wasn’t there to expose their lie.
Looking back on it now, the whole thing was incredible. Literally, as in not credible. Especially since, when I left, we were #1 in our timeslot in Chicago. Ironically, in our timeslot was Wheel of Fortune with Pat (another Chicagoan) and Vanna; and Siskel & Ebert – also two Chicagoans.
But our little WGN cable lottery show was beating both nationally syndicated shows. In Chicago. Plus, the Lottery was making record millions with the show. So who would mess with that kind of success? Political egos. To some, the chance to be a celebrity must be pretty intoxicating. The Lottery director, who was originally, only supposed to appear infrequently on the show, decided to became a regular fixture, expanding her role exponentially. She bought a new wardrobe. She even got a facelift! Just for her few minutes of weekly “air time.” I recall the original executive producer once warned me, before he left, that we had the potential for a really good show – as long as politicians didn’t get in the way.
Regarding the suits, the Lottery gave a local clothier a weekly, on-air, announcer-mentioned, credit at the end of every show, in exchange for 8 suits – which I was wore for the whole run. In fact, my weight fluctuated over the run of the show. (Hello, Drew Carey!) But I still only had those same 8 suits, which over time didn’t fit as well. So, between the on-air credit and just seeing me wearing those suits, the notion that the Lottery fired me over those suits, was plainly transparent to anyone paying attention. But I was gone and they needed an explanation. They also needed cover.
A final, interesting footnote: Mike Jackson, the former news reporter, who replaced [me] as host, got the job without going through the same audition process I did. He was married to Sally Ward Jackson, who at the time, was the director of the state’s Department of Employment Security. It seems the show’s ratings were never as high as during my tenure, and perhaps that should be some vindication. But, as I’ve said, I really had moved on.
GP: Were you aware of the national exposure you were getting due to WGN being a superstation? If so, how did you use it to your advantage?
JC: The show aired nationally on cable, but I don’t recall experiencing any “national exposure” by any professional metric. It increased my visibility in Chicago, which was interesting. But I really never found it to translate beyond that. But it did provide me with on-air experience that I was able to parlay into work on the local PBS station in Los Angeles. For five years, I was an on-air host during their pledge drives. But that tenure was due, more to my work with them, than my work in Chicago.
GP: In your opinion, do game shows really have an impact on lottery sales? Why or why not?
JC: Probably. But only if they are entertaining game shows. If they’re only 30 minute infomercials to sell lottery tickets, then, likely no. For example, I never actually told people to buy Lottery tickets. I was a TV game show host, not a Lottery retailer. My job was to make the TV show as entertaining as I could for the television audience. Whether
that audience bought lottery tickets or not. I never tried to sell lottery tickets on air. I just explained the rules and wished luck to those who played. But I never said “Buy a lottery ticket!” My co-host did, but I didn’t. If the show was fun, and people won, the audience would want to be on the show. So they would buy tickets. You really never had to ask. From the very beginning, our show’s original executive producer/creator told me this. It made perfect sense to me and I believe he was right. So I proudly adopted his approach, even after he left the show. I think it was another reason for our high ratings when I was there. Our audience wasn’t just the game players. My focus was on entertainment. Not sales. Just play the game, make it fun, respect the people who are contestants, and your audience and sales will take care of themselves. It certainly worked for us.
GP: You have done other things as well. Most Trekkies know you as the voice of the Borg in Star Trek: First Contact. How did you get involved with that?
JC: Again, it was just another audition. My agent called while I was vacationing in Las Vegas. As it was a voiceover role, I was able to audition by phone, from my vacation. When I got home, I was asked to audition again; this time, in person and for the director. I went Paramount Studios soundstage to meet the director of Star Trek: First Contact, Jonathan Frakes, who is also known to Trekkers as “Commander Riker.” We discussed my phone audition and some adjustments he wanted me to make with the character. An audio engineer recorded the audition. I did one take and was hired on the spot. As it also happened, that same audition take was the actual take used in the film.
GP: What’s your favorite role and why? What’s your least favorite role and why?
JC: I have to answer these two questions the same way. I don’t really have a single favorite or least favorite. Some roles are more interesting and enjoyable or more challenging, because of the script, director, cast and crew. Those factors all help to inform your view of the work. As an actor, when you create a role, you have to invest it with parts of yourself. So, thinking in terms of least/most favorite almost becomes like picking among your children. So I prefer thinking of the experiences more than the roles themselves. But my standard silly answer is that I like every role as long as the check clears.
GP:You also hosted another game show called Know Your Heritage. Is there anything you’d like to say about that?
JC: The format was very different from the lottery game show. “Know Your Heritage” was actually a “College Bowl” type quiz show. It featured as contestants, African-American students from Chicago high schools. Also, unlike the lottery show, doing well had nothing to do with random luck. The kids answered questions on African-American history of Chicago. We shot four episodes, which aired during the four weeks of Black History Month, in 1990. The work the kids did in preparation for those shows was extraordinary and inspiring. The questions were not easy and the kids had to work very hard with their coaches and/or teachers in order to do well. You couldn’t help but be impressed. The prizes were trophies, all-expense paid trips to Disney World and college scholarships.
GP: What are you currently doing now that you’d like to tell us about?
JC: Thanks for asking. I continue to work in theatre, television, film, radio & TV commercials, voice work, etc. I’ve also returned to academia and am working with two local universities in Los Angeles and another college back East. In addition to all that, I am currently developing a couple writing projects, have commissioned a separate writing project and am negotiating the film rights for two published novels. I am also doing some studio recording and have begun research for another advanced degree. So, while things are busy, I am grateful to continue to be working.
GP: Finally, what advice do you have for people who want to enter your field of work?
JC: If I were to offer advice, it would likely just be to share a few life lessons I’ve learned over the years. For example, never be afraid to do the work required to make yourself successful. Always be prepared when opportunities arise, because life only rewards those who are ready to go when asked. Realize that opportunity will knock – but it won’t stick around forever, waiting on you – and it sure won’t beg! So study, train, watch, listen and learn. Accept that you never learn anything when you are speaking. Believe in yourself. But be honest with yourself as well. Be your own best constructive critic. Reject mediocrity, especially within yourself. Ignore the negativity of negative people. They are everywhere. Because failure, like misery, loves company. Because no one really knows what you can do. But you.
In terms of entering my field, I would simply say: learn your craft. Study the business. Learn its history. There’s a reason it’s called “show business.” Reach out to someone who does what you’d like to do and study their road to success. If possible, even solicit their advice. Be voracious in your appetite for learning, your commitment to preparation and your passion for the work. Network, if possible. Learn as much as you can wherever you are, before considering moving to a more competitive environment.
The internet is a phenomenal resource. I’m always surprised when people don’t take full use of it to get answers to their questions; and help in pointing them in the right direction. When/if you’re finally ready to make “The Big Move,” be prepared to compete for unpaid internships, just to make contact with the people you’d eventually like to work with/for. Be prepared to continue your training. Bring your thick skin, because rejection is a constant. And realize virtually nothing will happen on your pre-ordained timetable. So, be flexible and don’t give yourself arbitrary deadlines and artificial timelines. It’s an incredibly competitive environment. But so is anything that’s worth having. If you study, train, work hard, believe in yourself and never give up, good things can come your way.
GP: Thank you so much.
JC: Thank you. It was a pleasure. I hope your readers find at least some of it interesting. Thanks again for asking me to do it. All the best.
While I have included a few episodes of Fortune Hunt, you can see so much more on his YouTube page, which I have embedded the link to in the interview. Many thanks go to Jeff.