TV's Star Search Seeks the Unknown and Sends Them Out of This World

updated 12/17/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Sam Harris, a 22-year-old singer, was fired from a job "because I sang so loud the customers were having trouble digesting their food." Thus, when he was invited to audition by a TV talent coordinator, he almost refused. "I'd never heard of Star Search before then," he recalls. "It sounded like Bowling for Dollars, only with talent." But Harris finally, and logically, decided he had nothing to lose: He was pulling in 50 bucks a night, if he was lucky, playing 50-seat dives, and had been turned down by every record company he approached. So Harris went on Star Search's fourth show, beat the reigning male champ in the vocalist category with a rafter-shaking rendition of I Am Changing, and kept coming back week after week. He racked up $25,000 in prize money and the basic appearance fees paid to all contestants and, on his 13th outing, won the finals in his category and walked away with the accompanying prize: $100,000.

If that sounds nice, you ain't heard nothing yet. After about his sixth appearance, record companies that had told Sam Harris to get lost began begging him to sign; he picked Motown. Soon it became impossible for him to pop into a grocery store without being besieged by requests for his autograph. Six months after that first Star Search appearance he was standing in Carnegie Hall at the end of a Star Search show, staring down in amazement at "people crying and screaming. They were treating me like I was the Beatles." Perhaps most astonishing of all, when Patti Labelle, during a concert in L.A., finished introducing the celebrities in attendance and asked if she had missed anyone, the audience chanted, "Sam Harris, Sam Harris, Sam Harris!" moving Labelle to invite him up onto the stage to join her in an encore rendition of—what else?—Over the Rainbow. Today Harris' first album, entitled Sam Harris, is climbing the charts and he is packing houses on a four-month, 40-city tour.

Confirmed cynics will be happy to hear that Star Search, a sometimes thrilling and often dreadful show now in its second season of syndication, hasn't turned out many success stories like that. But it has produced a startling number that come pretty close. Alumni from the first Star Search season have already captured regular roles on The A-Team and General Hospital, been the guests of Johnny and Merv, choreographed a feature film, sung with stars ranging from the Beach Boys to Dolly Parton and starred or been featured in at least three major movies—and almost all were unheard of before they went on the show.

The host for Star Search is Ed McMahon, the world's most famous second banana, who came in second in the only talent contest he ever entered, a radio announcing competition in Lowell, Mass. "I've had great success in this business," he says. "I'm anxious to help other people get lucky too." Each week McMahon brings out eager new contestants to challenge the previous week's champs in each category, and four judges rate their performances, with the studio audience deciding by vote in case of a tie. Entrance to the semifinals is then awarded on the basis of most wins in each category. Executive producer Bob Banner estimates that more than 20,000 would-be contestants auditioned for the 180 spots on last year's show. The program is taped in L.A. and conducts its auditions there as well as around the country. His staff is bombarded with an average of 200 unsolicited phone calls a day. An open call for models and dancers brought out 4,000 determined performers, many of whom lined up the night before with blankets and thermoses of coffee at the audition door.

The search for America's budding stars is conducted in eight categories: actors, actresses, male and female vocalists, singing groups, dancers, comedians (perhaps the most difficult spot because, as Brad Garrett, the winning contestant, noted, it normally takes more than the allotted two-and-a-half-minute time "just to get the microphone adjusted") and—the winner of the most dubious new category—"TV spokesmodel." Contestants in that last field must possess "poise, beauty and the ability to speak effectively in a variety of situations." Translation: a model who can talk in public. That odd category has already produced one of the show's biggest winners.

Tracey Ross was sitting at home watching Star Search when she heard the spokesmodel of the week speak effectively the words she would later utter herself: "If you'd like to be on Star Search..." "As soon as I heard the address I got out my glossy photo, peeled back the creases, wiped off the dust and sent it in," says the perky, 24-year-old model and actress. At the time, she had already accomplished far more than most would-be entrants. Several months earlier she had landed a three-month stint as cocaine addict Serena Miles on All My Children and, after much testing, won a small part in Francis Coppola's Cotton Club. Ross got a spot on Star Search, competed 10 times and won the spokesmodel finals. Two days after her triumph aired she went to the Grammy Awards in February (her date, Kashif, was a nominee), and the fans outside began screaming, "Tracey! Tracey!" "I just kept looking around for Tracy Austin or somebody," she remembers. She had also been spotted on Star Search by the producers of Eddie Murphy's Best Defense, and wound up playing Murphy's bedmate in the movie. Since her win, Tracey has signed a lucrative prime-time development deal for her own ABC-TV pilot, is this year's recipient of the National Association of Theatre Owners Star of the Future Award (past winners include Shirley MacLaine and Peter Fonda) and has been signed to top billing in the movie Star of Persia, playing a jewel thief.

That is quite a leap for a young woman who three years ago was out of work and so hungry that "I snitched food from supermarket aisles and scoured phone booths to find change." Tracey says that she was broke for so long that "I couldn't think of spending any of the money"—so she's invested all of her $100,000 prize and most of her subsequent earnings. She has had to make one adjustment to her newfound fame. Whereas she started out signing all autographs with the fan's name and some such message as "You have pretty eyes," she admits that "now I just write, 'Cheers, Tracey Ross.' " She also has one new concern: "I worry about my dreams crashing."

Tracey has stayed in touch with several of her fellow contestants, including Harris, and calls them "some of the nicest, most professional people I have ever worked with. The thing I liked best was that while everybody wanted to win, nobody wanted anyone else to lose." Despite the camaraderie, all competition in show business, including that on Star Search, has a deep cutting edge. Onetime judge Pam Dawber, casting her fateful ballot, whispered to a fellow judge, producer Allan Carr, "I'd rather get out of the business than go through what these kids are going through now." Even all-time winner Harris, who lost one heat along the way to singer Beau Williams, still shudders when he considers the emotional stakes. "I don't care what anybody claims," he says. "If somebody doesn't like your spot, they're telling you you're a bad person, and that's all there is to it."

In return for that risk, the potential rewards of the exposure are enormous, win or lose. Warren Beatty is such a devotee that he occasionally asks to be sent a tape of a show he missed, and one loser on the very first Star Search has already done better with people who saw her at home than she did with the judges. Curvaceous Shelley Taylor Morgan can now be seen most weekdays as health club owner Lorena Sharpe on ABC's soap General Hospital. Other big winners:

•Brother-and-sister dance team Mark and Laura Sellers won their first local contest in Decatur, Ala., a sock hop at which Mark was embarrassed to take off his shoes because his stockings were so full of holes. Mark and Laura used their Star Search prize money to treat their brother to a car, their father to a horse, move their mother (the parents are separated) to California and put their brother Greg through pre-med school. Mark is now a hoofer on TV's Solid Gold, was seen on the Dolly Parton-Kenny Rogers Christmas special and choreographed the soon-to-be-released feature film Lovelines, while Laura has just finished a national Sears commercial.

Six-foot nine-inch Brad Garrett, who admits to being "tall for a Caucasian," turned to comedy because he couldn't play high school basketball. More often employed as a waiter than a comedian before Star Search, Garrett has enjoyed two appearances on the Carson show, one on Merv Griffin, opened for the Beach Boys at the New Orleans World's Fair and recently toured as the opening act for Crystal Gayle.

In all fairness, and to keep cynics satisfied, not all Star Search entrants immediately find stardom. Before appearing, Chad Restum, 27, was just another struggling, unemployed actor in New York. Since winning on the show he is still like any other struggling, unemployed thespian, except that he has $100,000 in the bank. Chad hasn't received many serious offers, although the sandy-haired 5'11" leading man has received inquiries of another kind from female admirers smitten with his preppy, L.L. Bean good looks. With his winnings, he treated himself to a bike, a 1977 car and a tuxedo. Star Search followers often told Chad, who appeared five times, "It must have been like having your own show!" "No, no," he joked on the air, "I feel more like a regular on The Sam Harris Show."

But, to end on a happier note, consider the case of another performer who has been on the talent program a lot. He has just been offered a five-year contract to host a TV show. It's called Star Search, and his name is Ed McMahon.

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