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Obituaries

Steve Carlin, 84; Produced TV's '$64,000 Question' Quiz Show

March 07, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Steve Carlin, a pioneer television producer whose credits range from the popular children's puppet show "Rootie Kazootie" to the landmark scandal-plagued quiz show the "$64,000 Question," has died. He was 84.

Carlin, who had Alzheimer's disease, died of pneumonia Feb. 4 at his home in New York, said his wife, Peggy.

The Brooklyn-born radio veteran launched his television career in 1950 by creating "Rootie Kazootie," an award-winning children's series that featured a mix of puppets and live actors.

The half-hour show, whose title character was a boy puppet in a baseball cap "full of zip and joy," was broadcast live from New York before a studio audience weeknights and Saturday mornings.

The show, which Carlin produced and co-wrote, ran for about 4 1/2 years, first on NBC and then ABC.

"Steve was just a very sweet and gentle man, but he knew what he wanted," recalled actress Naomi Lewis, the voice of Rootie Kazootie. "He was a wonderful storyteller and that, of course, is what made him successful in so many other fields."

Carlin achieved his greatest success -- and notoriety -- on television as executive producer of the "$64,000 Question," which ushered in prime-time TV's big-money game shows when it debuted on CBS during the summer of 1955.

Before the decade was over, however, Carlin was testifying before the House Legislative Oversight Subcommittee, which was investigating the alleged rigging of quiz shows.

The motto of the "$64,000 Question," which rose to No. 1 in the ratings in only five weeks, was "where knowledge is king, and the reward king-sized." (The radio version had been called the "$64 Question.")

The show gave contestants, who were experts in a particular field of knowledge, a chance to double their money each time they correctly answered an increasingly more difficult question. To add to the suspense, contestants were placed in an isolation booth.

The show's immense popularity led to a spin-off, the "$64,0000 Challenge," and then the "Big Surprise," both of which Carlin executive produced -- as well as a spate of other competing game shows.

Rumors, however, soon surfaced that the "$64,000 Question" and other game shows were rigged.

In November 1959, Mert Koplin, the show's associate producer, testified in Washington that the "$64,000 Question," "$64,000 Challenge" and "Big Surprise" were all controlled quiz shows and that the sponsor, Revlon Co., knew it.

Koplin's testimony, in which he said the sponsor's advertising executives pressured producers to let contestants who were popular with audiences win in order to boost ratings, reportedly was the first direct linking of a sponsor with the fixing of TV programs since the committee had launched its investigation.

Revlon denied the allegations. But in Carlin's appearance before the committee, he supported Koplin's testimony. According to the Associated Press account, Carlin testified that he agreed with what Koplin said about the techniques and degree of control over quiz shows.

Shirley Bernstein, an associate producer of the "$64,000 Challenge," also testified that the show was frequently rigged on instructions from the sponsor and that the rigging was done at Carlin's request.

"There were many meetings with the sponsor where Mr. Carlin would come back with anger," Bernstein said. "Often I would say, 'Why do it this way?' Mr. Carlin would say that it was not his wish, but the sponsors wanted it that way."

Fixing the outcome of game shows did not become illegal until 1960, and only those accused of lying to investigators were prosecuted for perjury.

But in the wake of the highly publicized game-show investigations, the "$64,000 Question" and almost every other prime-time game show that offered cash prizes were dropped by their networks.

The son of Russian immigrants, Carlin earned a bachelor's degree from City College of New York and a master's in education at Columbia University.

But radio altered his plans of becoming a teacher. By 1940, he was working as a script manager at WMCA, and two years later he was working on the production staff at NBC.

In 1945, Carlin created and wrote "Happy the Humbug," a 15-minute radio show featuring satirical stories about animals who acted like humans. Carlin, in collaboration with artist Myron Waldman, also wrote a successful syndicated cartoon strip of the same name.

In the mid-1940s, Carlin also wrote scripts for "Gang Busters," "Famous Jury Trials," "Counterspy," "Exploring the Unknown" and the Kate Smith radio show.

By 1950, Carlin was head of the RCA children's record division, producing a series of children's records with Hollywood stars such as James Stewart narrating Winnie the Pooh and Charles Laughton narrating the works of Dickens.

After the cancellation of the "$64,000 Question," Carlin continued to produce many other television shows, including "Science All Stars," an Emmy-nominated 1963-1964 ABC show featuring young people and their science projects.

Carlin later returned to the quiz show format. He executive produced an inflation-adjusted remake of the "$64,000 Question" called the "$128,000 Question," a syndicated show that ran from 1976 to 1978. He also produced more than half a dozen game shows in Europe.

In addition to his wife of 56 years, he is survived by a daughter, Melissa, and a brother, Morty.

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