Mark Goodson Wizard of Games
05/14/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
Do you know him? Probably not, but don't let it worry you. Not even Mark Todson thinks that you should. Or is it Bill Goodman? Whoever he is, his name crawls across America's TV screens 20 times a week—25 in most major markets—but not even American Express knows his face. As a mystery guest on What's My Line? a show he invented 34 years ago, he came embarrassingly close to stumping the panel. And when he once asked his 4-year-old daughter if she knew who he was, she replied brightly, "MarkGoodsonBillTodman."
In their own way game show geniuses Goodson and Todman are as deeply rooted in the lore of TV as Ozzie and Harriet or Huntley and Brinkley. What began as a friendly partnership in 1946, with Goodson as games man and Todman as deal maker, eventually deteriorated into a bitter rivalry that lasted until Todman's death in 1979. But it hardly paved their way to the poorhouse. Since 1950 there has never been a time when at least one Goodson gameshow was not on a network. During the late '50s and early '60s he and Todman were practically an industry unto themselves, churning out as many as 50 half hours of national programming a week. Nor has time passed Mark Goodson by. Family Feud, seen in separate editions on ABC and in nationwide syndication, is the most lucrative game show ever, bringing in close to $50 million a year. Three more concoctions, Tattletales (CBS), The New Price Is Right (CBS) and The Match Game, now coupled with Hollywood Squares (NBC), are still playing on U.S. daytime TV; the original Price Is Right remains the top-rated program in England, and 25 other Goodson creations are being broadcast in one place or another around the world. "It's a strange business we're in, where grown-ups create little games," muses Goodson, 69, a melancholy man of immaculate tailoring. "But there's a little exhibitionist in all of us. The ham instinct is like a sex urge. People go on game shows not so much for the money but to have their day in the sun."
Whatever the game-playing impulse, Goodson has prospered by knowing how to exploit it. Estimates of his fortune begin at $100 million, and his holdings include more than 25 newspapers and real estate interests in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. "I know that I have money," says Goodson, "but I don't feel rich." Living well within his means, he shuttles between a 12-room Manhattan duplex and a suite he leases at the Beverly Hills Hotel. His personal staff includes a maid, a butler, a cook, a laundry woman and a chauffeur. But with all the trappings that wealth has bestowed, happiness has so far eluded him.
For Goodson every silver lining comes equipped with a cloud. Except during those joyous intermezzos when he is falling in love or producing another hit show, he seems perpetually tangled in his own insecurities. "I tend to look for the minefields," he says. "There is always a dreamlike fear that someone is going to pull the rug out. I'm always saying, 'Christ, I'm so old,' but my real fear is that the door of my limousine will open and someone will say, 'Hey, little boy, what are you doing in this big car?' It's a sense that I don't deserve it."
Contributing to his uneasiness has been the failure of his three marriages. "I cannot create when my personal life is in turmoil," he maintains. "I stare at that yellow pad and think I will never again have an original idea." Particularly shattering was the breakup in 1978 of his six-year marriage to his third wife, Suzanne, a model who is now a lawyer. "For me that marriage was idyllic," says Goodson. "For the first time I was the one who was dumped. After that I had two years of nonfunctioning. I began seeing psychiatrists on both coasts because I could not go a day without therapy. The higher you go up Mount Olympus, the farther you fall."
During what he calls "the black period," Goodson wore his heart on his designer sleeve and sought solace among his intimate friends. "I have never seen another human being so wounded by another," says retired broadcasting executive David Levy. "I listened to endless analyses of what went wrong, as often as five times a day." Some of Goodson's friends grew tired of listening. "New York is winner-loving country," he says. "Many people considered me self-indulgent. They said, 'Buck up. Forget it.' But it was not in my control. I think I'm okay now. I can remember the pain, but I no longer feel it. I was rescued by time and a renewed sense of self-worth that came from my work."
Work has always been Goodson's way out. The son of Russian immigrants, he was raised on a chicken farm in Hay ward, Calif. "I was very fat and not overwhelmed with self-love," he recalls. "When I first went to work, if somebody had guaranteed me a job at $10,000 a year for life, I would have grabbed it because security was everything. That and never going back where you came from." In 1932 his father, a vegetarian, opened the first health food store in Berkeley. "He was hot-tempered and distrusted things that tasted too good," says Goodson. "Every two weeks he would go on a grape diet. He was like Gandhi, an ascetic. My mother, on the other hand, was very lusty, a gregarious woman who liked to dance, give parties and play cards."
Winning a series of scholarships to Berkeley, Goodson graduated with a Phi Beta Kappa key in 1937. His father urged him to take up the law; instead he became a disc jockey in San Francisco. Married in 1941 to Bluma Neveleff ("a rather strong lady who helped guide my career"), he moved to New York and worked as a free-lance announcer, catching on with the radio show We the People. "He was not very well dressed, he had a big innocent grin, and he was so nervous he rattled his script against the mike," remembers Levy, then the show's producer, "but he had a great voice."
Within a year and a half Goodson was earning $20,000 annually. "I saw Mark go from rags to riches to great wealth," says Levy, "and it created problems for him. He was always insecure. He hesitated to go into "21," for instance, because he felt he didn't belong." His performing career ended abruptly, with a terminal case of mike fright. "I was reading a commercial when my hands started to perspire and my voice began to tighten," Goodson says. "Soon I would become nauseous if I walked into a studio." Unable to work, he turned to psychoanalysis. "I had a lot of emotional problems. I hadn't been terribly faithful to my wife, and I felt guilty." (More durable than his radio voice, his marriage lasted 14 years and produced two children, Jill, now 39, and Jonathan, 36.)
Goodson's luck changed again for the better when he read a magazine article about a marriage counselor. He sought her out—not for advice, but to use her case files. From them he spun a half-hour soap opera, Appointment With Life, which he produced and directed for ABC radio. "I told them I'd directed before, but it was a fib," he says. "Then I deliberately hired an actress whose husband headed an ad agency that sponsored its own shows." That bit of shrewd calculation landed him a job producing the popular soap Portia Faces Life. Goodson had met Bill Todman when both were working on a local quiz show. "I was impressed that he was rich enough to live on Park Avenue and own a Buick," Goodson says. They became partners five years later, after Todman sold Goodson's first game show, Winner Take All, to CBS radio. They plunged into television in 1950 with What's My Line? "Live television was like flying without a net," says Goodson. "We never knew what would happen. I remember Eddie Fisher as a mystery guest saying, 'Any rumors you hear that Elizabeth and I are breaking up are lies.' Another mystery guest, Judy Garland, had the show's staff chewing its nails when she wobbled in just before she was supposed to go on, with her hair in a riot of curlers, and promptly repaired to her dressing room. I was about to take her place," says Goodson, "when she came over to me and asked, 'How much time do we have?' I said, 'Fifteen seconds, Miss Garland,' and she replied, 'So what's the rush?' and walked onstage."
After What's My Line? Goodson-Todman began turning out game shows the way GM made cars. The slapstick favorite Beat the Clock (1950) was followed by I've Got a Secret (1952), To Tell the Truth (1956), The Price Is Right (1956) and Password (1961). By 1958 Goodson and Todman had become the most successful packagers in television. Some believe it went to Goodson's head. "Mark is extremely talented," says former Goodson-Todman executive Bud Austin. "He has an overwhelming ego and has convinced himself that he is the sole source of creativity in that company." Adds Bob Stewart, an independent producer who created CBS' $25,000 Pyramid: "The company was run like a plantation with Goodson as the master. He was benign, but we were on call 24 hours a day. I have never heard him give credit to anybody for an original idea."
After divorcing his first wife, Goodson married Virginia McDavid, a former Miss Alabama. "She was a pretty little girl," says one friend. "He liked to push her forward and have people look at her, but they came from different worlds. The marriage was doomed." In a 1968 court battle Goodson won custody of their daughter, Marjorie, now 21. He married Suzanne Waddell in 1972. "She was pushed by Mark, then propelled by herself," says a friend. "It was a Pygmalion where Pygmalion loses." Wounded, but not discouraged, Goodson says he would be willing to marry again. "I'm at my most creative when I'm involved with a woman," he says. Goodson is currently squiring several ladies.
Because he can afford it and because, like his contestants, he enjoys being seen, Goodson turns up regularly at the most chichi watering spots (Spago, Ma Maison and Morton's on the West Coast; Le Cirque, Elaine's and Club A on the East), often with some long-legged beauty for company. A typical day in Beverly Hills revolves around his two-hour sunbath. He appears at the hotel pool in Polo swim trunks, toting a snakeskin briefcase containing papers, pills, tanning lotion and a sleep mask. A bronzed attendant plugs in Goodson's personal phone, while the producer bastes himself with Bain de Soleil ("I like a tan look") and waits for the phone to ring. "I'm not a good loner," he says.
In New York Goodson entertains often and lavishly. His guest lists are exclusive, and his menus are carefully chosen. "Not everyone in the Forbes Four Hundred serves Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1970 and knows the difference," says art dealer Richard Feigen. "Mark knows the best and insists on perfection." Famous faces glide through Goodson's expensively decorated rooms, complementing his Kandinskys and Dubuffets. The host is a clever raconteur and poet who spends tortured hours perfecting doggerel for friends. They, in turn, regard him as brilliant, complicated and generous. "If you called Mark at 3 a.m. and said, 'I can't tell you why, but I need you in Bogotá tomorrow morning,' he would turn up," says literary lawyer Mort Janklow.
Until that call arrives, the pessimist is busy brooding on other frontiers. Body Language, a new game show based on pantomime, is on its way to production, and Goodson is interested in producing a film. "I've had the applause of the mass audience," he says. "Now I'd like to hear the applause of my peers." This week ABC will pay its own modest tribute with TV's Funniest Game Show Moments, a collection of clips from thousands of Goodson-Todman shows past. Among the highlights: Phyllis Diller being asked on Tattle-tales, "If you posed nude for Playboy, who would object?" ("Playboy," blurted Diller.) No less zany, after their fashion, are ordinary contestants like the jittery Family Feud player who, when commanded, "Name a famous Willy," could splutter only, "Willy the Pooh." "People ask me if we tell all those contestants to shout, 'Good answer, good answer!' " says Goodman, pipe clenched in his teeth, smoke wreathing his silver hair like a halo. "Hell, no," he grumbles. "Some of those answers are terrible."