Happy New Year, everyone! This is the first interview of 2011. And 2011 marks the 25th anniversary of The New Hollywood Squares with my guest today, Mr. John Davidson.
Yes, that John Davidson. At first glance, you either love him or hate him. You’d probably think a song was about him. But once you get to know the guy….. he is a good good, very nice guy. I had the pleasure of interviewing him over e-mail (got a connection through the John Davidson e-mail list), and I edited this interview for spelling, capitalization, grammar, etc. Although showing the conversation as is would depict him to be human, I insist on maintaining some form of professionalism.
Greg Palmer: Hi, John. First off, how did you get involved in show business?
John Davidson: I became a theater arts major in college in order to be a better minister. I wanted to be like my father, who was a baptist preacher. but I soon realized that I like the theater part of religion and want nothing to do with religion itself. With my Theater Arts college degree in hand I headed for Broadway after doing 3 seasons of summer stock. Bob Banner, the TV producer found me in a Broadway show and molded my career. He advised that I be a pitchfork instead of a spear. He helped me develope myself as a multifaceted performer. That has been my survival.
GP: I know this is going to seem obvious to you, but some of our readers don’t know this. Long before you hosted Hollywood Squares, you were on the original show with Peter Marshall and Paul Lynde. What was that like? Do you have any experiences you’d like to share with us?
JD: My training was in night clubs, Broadway shows, films, and variety TV. I guested on game shows like Hollywood Squares so that my name would be associated with my face as opposed to just a character name in a sit-com. Guesting on Hollywood Squares also gave me a chance to network with other entertainers. Paul Lynde was very funny but a miserable guy. Peter Marshall was the best TV host I have worked with. I have tried to emulate him whenever I find myself in that situation.
GP: Now, you had 2 shows around 1980, when the Marshall daytime version ended. The first was The John Davidson Show, which had, according to a YouTube user, “one of the most vain show opens in daytime TV history”. As much as I like the star concept in the logo, I must agree. Was that your idea or Group W’s?
JD: Very good. No one has ever pointed that out to me before. I think I agree. The producers were trying to figure out how to keep the Mike Douglas talk show format going with an entertainer like me. I was not an interviewer so I think they wanted to capitalize on John Davidson the entertainer. The other mistake was having me sing at the opening of every show. This is confusing to the audience. Is he a singer, or a host, or an interviewer? Oprah and Phil [Donahue, although probably the same can be said of McGraw] were not doing this and they were the new wave that was coming in. My talk show lasted 2 years and was a time of growth for me. I learned a lot. I still think it was best time of my career:. so many guests and topics. It expanded my life in so many ways.
GP: I’m sure hosting your own daytime talk show gave you plenty of experience with people. How did it help you with Squares and Time Machine?
JD: Talk shows and game shows took over when variety shows died. So, for me, they were an extension of improvising and entertaining that I loved.
GP: The other show is That’s Incredible! Now, I’ve interviewed Bill Rafferty from Real People, and he said the show “really struck a chord with [the] Heartland [of] America”. Do you think the same could be said about TI?
JD: That’s Incredible capitalized on the success of Real People. I was seen in 40 foreign countries and we were top 5 for 3 or 4 years. But of course I didn’t sing on it. Working with Fran Tarkington and Cathy Lee Crosby was incredible. We had a strong close relationship. No egos because we all had different strengths. Woody Fraser, our line producer, was the key to the show. He came from daytime talk with Mike Douglas. His sense of entertainment made the show so much more than a freak show. He understands people, and what makes people give the best of their talents.
GP: Your show could be described as “reality TV”. I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of modern reality TV lately. What do you think of it? Could a show like TI work on the TV of 2011?
JD: Hit shows exist because they capture the imagination of a time. That’s Incredible is out of date now. Just a really good memory.
GP: Your first real game show was Time Machine, and when I read about it in the Encyclopedia of TV Game Shows, I thought it was cool. After I saw it via tape trade, it really was cool. How did you get involved with it?
JD: Time Machine was a great concept. Bob Noah was an inspiring producer and creator. The TV version of Scrabble is his. Someone should try the Time Machine concept again.
GP: I remember watching the 1st episode (via tape trade, I’m not that old) and you said in your monologue that you hoped the show would be on for a long time. However, in the finale, you stated that TM was just a mini-series. That was very clever. However, the show looked so successful at the time. I liked it, and I’m sure a number of other people liked it. However, according to this YouTube video, the show was replaced by Silver Spoons reruns. I think the show constantly changing formats might’ve had something to do with it, but I’m curious. John, in your opinion, why did TM get the cut? What went wrong?
JD: It’s so hard to figure out why shows don’t stay on. Bottom line, they’re all terminal. But Time Machine should have another shot, with a younger host, of course.
GP: The one show that game show fans remember you best for is Hollywood Squares, but before we get to that, I’d like to get to an earlier iteration. It’s The Match Game-Hollywood Squares Hour. What intrigues me is how NBC (or Mark Goodson) chose Jon Bauman to host the HS half instead of Peter Marshall. Why do you think that was?
JD: I have no idea. Too many reasons for decisions like that.
GP: Do you think the show could’ve lasted longer with Marshall at the helm?
JD: You know what I think of Peter Marshall. but who can say.
GP: I’m reading about your version of Squares on the Internet, and it seems to me that it was a pretty fun show. You constantly moved from place to place, doing shows in New York, Hollywood in Florida, and the Bahamas. You’re probably one of the few American game shows to tape outside the country. Deal or No Deal is the only other one I can think of, they taped 1 show each in the Philippines, Estonia, and South Africa. Now, your show had a medium-sized run, about 3 years. I think it should’ve lasted longer. I can only assume that ratings, the rise of the daytime talk show, and the power of the Griffin Suite caused your downfall. What’s really intriguing is the “Happy Trails” number used in what would become the finale. The cast and crew were in the squares, they disappeared, the audience disappeared, eventually the set was bare….. except for the cars and some balloons that fall from the ceiling. It’s certainly one of the most unique ways to end a game show, and I’m impressed. Whose idea was it, and how did that go down?
JD: Our producer Rick Rosner had a very strong and creative, hands-on approach to The New Hollywood Squares. Most of the great ideas for bringing the show back after the classic run with Peter were his. Rosner is an extremely creative guy, he was the force behind CHiPs with Erik Estrada. Rosner deserves more credit than he has had. I think our version of Squares could have run longer if we hadn’t been caught up in “The Wheel”. By that I mean over the years so many shows have been put on to beat Wheel Of Fortune. We beat it for a time, but Wheel is just a very strong universally accepted, fun format. That’s Incredible was created to beat 60 Minutes on Sunday night. Then we were used to beat Monday Night Football. The competition is always fierce and has a lot to do with the show’s success.
GP: The one show I nearly forgot to mention [to be honest, I actually did forget it, so I sent a reply to him] was your run of The $100,000 Pyramid. It was a great show.
JD: Yeah Pyramid is such a great game. And it attracts smart contestants and celebs. My favorite of course was Betty White, but Vicki Lawrence was great too. I only hosted Pyramid for a year and a half. It was more of a traffic cop type hosting job. No need to try for laughs. I think Dick Clark was the best host of Pyramid.
GP: In 1997, King World started producing a revival of Squares which premiered in 1998. The hosting role went to Tom Bergeron, who is now hosting Dancing with the Stars and America’s Funniest Videos. I’m curious though, were you offered the job? Did you offer to host yourself? The reason I ask is because they got Shadoe, but not you.
JD: Tom is an excellent host. I watch him all the time and pick up ideas from him a lot. But when you bring a show back you just always get a new host, like they did when I replaced Peter. Shadoe is quite a guy and a wonderful talent. But when they brought Squares back I didn’t think they used him enough. He has a lot to give.
GP: I also notice that you were absent from the “Game Show Host Weeks” on that version. Peter Marshall came back and was Center Square. He even switched places with Tom for an episode! Yet, you weren’t there! Why was that?
JD: I don’t know. You have to remember that Peter Marshall was the classic. I was good, but Peter was the first.
GP: What did you think of that version? Could you compare to yours?
JD: I thought it was great. Whoopi was great. Tom was great. I love the format.
GP: The Bergeron version was cancelled in 2004. Why do you think that is? Could it be just ratings?
JD: Again, every show is terminal. I wish it had lasted longer. I thought it was entertaining.
GP: Do you think we’ll ever see another revival of Squares anytime soon?
JD: Yes. Squares is a proven format. It will be done again.
GP: I understand you and your wife are now living in Mexico. A lot of celebrities are moving out of the States and living in foreign countries, including Tina Turner. It seems to me that you’d be out of place there, but of course I’ve never been to Mexico. Why’d you decide to live there?
JD: My son is married to a Mexicana. I have 2 grandchildren who are bilingual. We wanted to live in a foreign country and get a different perspective on everything. We have now, after 6 years, sold the house in San Miguel, Mexico and live in Florida near my other grandchildren. But we will return to Mexico often to study Spanish. We have learned a lot, but would like to be fluent. Knowing a second language makes our lives fuller and more interesting. By the way, It kills me to see what has happened to the Mexico’s economy because our news coverage of the drug wars is so ridiculous. If you watch CNN or any major network, the coverage of the Mexican drug wars, they almost never say that 90% of Mexico is safe, incredibly tourist friendly and the least expensive, best vacation you and your family could take. Let’s get real. Chicago and Detroit are not safe places. The murder rates are extremely high. So would you say that travel in the whole USA is dangerous. NO. Yes, there are areas in Mexico that you should not visit, but 90% of Mexico is safer than so many cities in our country. And a lot more interesting.
GP: Finally, what advice do you have for people who want to enter your field of work?
JD: Do it. Don’t wait until you think you are ready. Ready, fire, aim. Not ready, aim, fire. You will never think you are good enough. And you are not as good as you will be after the show you are doing now. You learn something with every performance. Anything that is really worthwhile takes work. All the people you admire were bad when they started. Step by step. But force yourself to take the step. You have to embarrass yourself over and over again. Artistic work is not comfortable. It makes you feel strange. It gives you chills. If it feels really comfortable, then you didn’t go for it enough. but if you have a passion for what you do, if you miss meals and sleep to do it, if you sometimes lose friends and loved ones because you chose to do it…..then that is what you should be doing. Teddy Roosevelt said, “Dare to do mighty things. Life is a gallop. We must either rust out or wear out. I prefer to wear out.”
Thank you very much, John. While we are discussing Squares, I’d like to direct your attention to the review of the recent video game. It’s a shame there’s only one celebrity per round, I would not recommend it. And to think, I nearly asked for it for Christmas.