Gene Rayburn, the actor and veteran quiz show host best known for emceeing television's "The Match Game," has died. He was 81.
Rayburn died Monday at his home near Gloucester, Mass., of congestive heart failure, said his daughter, Lynne Rayburn.
Although he is most associated with television, Rayburn entered the entertainment field as an aspiring opera singer. He left his native Illinois in the late 1930s to seek work on the New York stage.
Unable to find an acting job, he was hired by NBC as a page and attended the network's announcer school. After serving in the Army as an officer, bombardier and pilot during World War II, he became a staff announcer at WNEW radio in New York, where he helped to popularize what is now known as "drive time" programming in a lively, early morning radio show called "Rayburn & Finch." He later hosted other programs for NBC radio, including a weekend news show called "Monitor."
When he moved to television in the early 1950s, he bombed on his first show and NBC attempted to fire him. But Rayburn had "an absolutely uncancelable contract" and was offered a children's game show called "The Sky's the Limit."
He fared so well in that job that after a year NBC made a better offer: Would he like to be second banana to Steve Allen on the "Tonight Show"? Rayburn stayed for six years, until 1959, delivering comical weather reports and acting in sketches with comedians such as Louis Nye and Buddy Hackett.
In the early 1960s, he finally earned the opportunity to work in the theater, appearing on Broadway in "Bye Bye Birdie" and traveling with the national company of "Come Blow Your Horn."
He hosted several television game shows during the 1950s and early 1960s, including ABC's "The Name's the Same" and NBC's "Make the Connection," "Dough-Re-Mi" and "Play Your Hunch."
While he was performing in "Come Blow Your Horn" in Philadelphia, he was asked to audition for a Goodson-Todman production, the show that became his longest-running hit.
"The Match Game" debuted on the last day of 1962 as a daytime series on NBC and ran for seven years. It was revived in 1973 on CBS for another six years and later ran in syndication.
The show pitted two contestants against a celebrity panel that regularly featured Richard Dawson, Brett Somers, Charles Nelson Reilly and Betty White, among others.
The contestants won money prizes if their answers to Rayburn's often embarrassing questions matched those of the famous panelists.
A typical question asked contestants to fill in the blank, as in "My wife must be the world's worst cook; she even burns [blank]." As challengers progressed, they were pitted against the audience in a segment called "audience match" and against one of the celebrity players in "head to head match."
Rayburn, whose on-camera smile ranged from puckish to leering, often kept audiences in stitches with bloopers. His most famous occurred while interviewing a contestant with prominent dimples. Intending to compliment her, he misspoke, saying as he looked at her face, "You have the most beautiful nipples I have ever seen."
"The audience went nuts," Lynne Rayburn said, "and they even had to stop tape. Everybody has played that clip, even in England."
The program ran in syndication from 1975 through 1982. After the show was dropped, Rayburn said he had entered "involuntary" retirement. "Ever since 'Entertainment Tonight' started giving my age when I turned 68, I haven't been getting anything to do," he told an interviewer several years ago. "That did me in."
In October, Rayburn was honored with a lifetime achievement award by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
He moved to New York, and eventually built a home in Roxbury, Conn. In recent years he lived near his daughter on Massachusetts' North Shore.
Survived by his daughter, Rayburn was married for 56 years to Helen Rayburn, who died in 1996. Donations in his memory may be sent to the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, 333 Washington St., Boston, MA 02108.