Between 1962 and 1982, while contestants filled in the blanks to silly questions on TV's The Match Game, host Gene Rayburn filled in much of the humor. As the show's wry emcee, Rayburn, who died Nov. 29 at age 81, was comically unpredictable. "Once, this girl came on," recalls longtime celebrity panelist Charles Nelson Reilly, "and Gene was going to say, 'Oh, you have such beautiful dimples,' and it came out as 'nipples.' He must have turned four colors of beet red!"

"The whole idea [of emceeing] is to amuse the people sitting in front of you," Rayburn told PEOPLE just days before dying of congestive heart failure at home in Beverly, Mass.

Yet the Illinois-born only child of Milan Rubessa, a machinist from Croatia, and his wife, Mary, a home-maker, once yearned to be an opera singer, and after a year at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., he moved to New York City. Unable to afford voice lessons, he took a job as a studio tour guide at NBC in 1936. After serving as a bombardier in World War II, Rayburn began to forge a broadcast résumé that took him from late '40s New York City radio deejay to sidekick on the original Tonight Show (1954-57). "He just had a happy-go-lucky kind of air," recalls then-host Steve Allen.

That jauntiness served him well on The Match Game. But with the show's demise in 1982, Rayburn landed few others. "He claimed it was because he was too old, but my God, look at Bob Barker!" says Lynne Rayburn, 57, an animal-rights activist and the only child of Gene and Helen Rayburn, his wife of 56 years who died in 1996. "He was brokenhearted that show business had forgotten him." On Oct. 26, they remembered as Rayburn won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in Manhattan. "He looked great," says Lynne. "He was very pleased."