He Got Game
"He makes the show funnier and more spontaneous," says programming head Andy Friendly, and that attracts 5.8 million viewers per week. "Stars know they'll have a host who can banter with them."
While past hosts Peter Marshall and John Davidson played straight men, trying to tame the nine rotating—and often unruly—celebrity guests, Bergeron, 45, who tied with Bob Barker for an Emmy win over Philbin in May, encourages them to be more zany. This season alone, Bergeron, whom Goldberg sums up as "simply a really funny, intelligent guy," traded trousers midshow with comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, prompted all the guests to flip each other the bird (a censored stunt that didn't air), and donned an Alex Trebek mustache.
"So often, a game show host falls under the heading of 'necessary evil,' " says actor Martin Mull, a regular guest. "But Tom is more like a ringmaster. He has wit. He does not take himself very seriously."
He didn't take the job offer very seriously either. When asked to audition in 1998, Bergeron had little interest. But recalling how he and Goldberg hit it off when she was a guest on his '96 show Fox After Breakfast, "I thought it would be nice to see her again," he says. When the job was offered, he said no.
"They wanted me to move out to L.A.," says Bergeron, a die-hard East Coaster, "and I didn't want to relocate. The next day, my agent called to say I didn't have to!"
Now living in New Hampshire with wife Lois, 48, a former TV producer, and daughters Jessica, 12, and Samantha, 10, while their Connecticut home is being remodeled, Bergeron flies to L.A. every other weekend for tapings. All week he's able to be with his family full-time—a welcome change from his early days in television.
"I was sometimes in bed before my kids were," says Bergeron, who worked morning shows throughout the '80s and '90s. "It got to be a running joke, and Lois got this board game called Don't Wake Daddy."
Still, says Lois, who married Bergeron in 1982 after friends introduced them earlier that year, "he was always a huge presence in the kids' lives. He would draw these cartoons of them and himself with a rhyming couplet before he went to work. Where do you get this creativity at 3 in the morning?"
It seems it has always been there, even when Bergeron was a boy in Haverhill, Mass. "In the grocery store he would see things on the shelves and make commercials about them," says his mother, Kay, 67, a teacher's aide. His father, Ray, 66, then a training supervisor for AT&T, encouraged his son by tape-recording his performances.
Hooked, Bergeron took to radio in high school. "I thought the morning announcements were dull as dishwater," says Bergeron (who has one sister, Maureen, 41, a nurse). "So we had people come and sing the lunch menu. It was like a five-minute radio show!"
Getting a part-time job at a local radio station at 17, he chose to stay on instead of going to college. Then in 1982, when he was hosting a talk-radio show in Portsmouth, N.H., a Boston TV station came calling.
After going through morning-show boot camp, he became a substitute host for Good Morning America in 1996. He was given a shot at the full-time gig replacing current cohost Charlie Gibson, but "to say [former GMA host] Lisa McRee and I were chemistry-impaired would be charitable," he says. "If you were sitting close enough to your TV, you got a wind chill that actually came off the set."
"Regrettably," responds McRee, "he's probably right. I didn't extend myself because of my allegiance to Charlie. I was upset at management trying to nudge him out."
There's nothing frosty about Hollywood Squares. "I love the gang there," says Bergeron. "And when I screw up, I've got nine people including Whoopi Goldberg drawing a bead on me. That's exciting." He's not worried about screwing up too badly though. "Whoopi knows I was fully aware that if this show went down, it wasn't going to be my failure," he says wryly. "It was going to be Whoopi's show that failed. And who the hell was that host guy, anyway?"
Cynthia Wang in New Hampshire, Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles and Angela Mosconi in New York City