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Ralph Edwards, 92; Producer, Genial Host of 'Truth or Consequences,' 'This Is Your Life'

November 17, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Ralph Edwards, the pioneer radio and television host and producer who created the landmark audience participation show "Truth or Consequences" and the long-running sentimental favorite "This Is Your Life," died Wednesday. He was 92.

Edwards, a three-time Emmy Award winner whose broadcasting career began on radio when he was a teenager in 1929 and spanned more than seven decades, died in his sleep of natural causes at his home in West Hollywood, publicist Laura Calliari said.

The onetime radio announcer who was responsible for thousands of hours of radio and television programming as a producer received a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2001.

At 90, Edwards, the head of Ralph Edwards Productions in Hollywood, was still putting in time at the office. Over the years, he produced more than 20 TV shows, including "It Could Be You," "Place the Face," "$100,000 Name That Tune" and "The Cross-Wits." Ralph Edwards Productions and Stu Billett Productions continue to co-produce "The People's Court," which debuted in 1981.

"There's no doubt that Ralph Edwards was a giant of radio and television," Bob Barker, longtime host of "The Price Is Right," told The Times on Wednesday. In 1956, Edwards hired Barker for "Truth or Consequences," a show Barker hosted for 18 years.

"I stole things from him I still use," said Barker, who watched Edwards when he hosted the show. "I think he's one of the finest hosts who ever worked."

Edwards, Barker added, was "a most unusual man, in that, in addition to being so talented as a host, producer and writer, he was adored by everyone who worked for him."

Edwards had broken out of the ranks of announcers as the host of "Truth or Consequences," which he created for radio in 1940. As the host, he asked contestants silly, generally tricky questions and made them "pay" the consequences for answering incorrectly by performing unusual and often elaborate stunts.

The program, which became radio's No. 1 audience participation show, aired for 38 consecutive years on radio and television. It was so popular that residents of Hot Springs, N.M., voted in 1950 to rename their small resort town after the show to cash in on the free publicity of the unique name.

The publicity-savvy Edwards had let it be known that he was looking for an American town willing to change its name as a promotion for the radio show's 10th anniversary, and he conducted a live "Truth or Consequences" broadcast from the program's new civic namesake.

"Truth or Consequences," which debuted on TV in 1950 with Edwards as host the first season, is credited with being the first show recorded on 35-millimeter film before a live audience on a regular basis, although it was not the first program filmed using multiple cameras. The three-camera, live-on-film system was later used on "I Love Lucy," which debuted in 1951, and the system is still used for sitcoms.

But the role for which Edwards will no doubt be best remembered is as the genial, smiling host of "This Is Your Life," whose surprised subjects had their life stories highlighted by the voices of long-lost friends and relatives, who then joined Edwards and his guest on stage.

The Saturday Evening Post once called it "the weepiest show on television."

Launched on radio in 1948 as a spinoff of "Truth or Consequences," "This Is Your Life" moved to television in 1952 and ran for nine years on NBC. Edwards hosted a syndicated version that ran from 1971 to 1973, and another syndicated version, hosted by Joseph Campanella, ran from 1983 to 1984. That was followed by several "This Is Your Life" specials.

Although best known for its celebrity guests of honor, "This Is Your Life" also presented the stories of people who had contributed to their communities -- "unknown American heroes," Edwards called them.

They included such people as educator Laurence C. Jones, who struggled for 50 years to establish Piney Woods College in Mississippi. His appearance in the 1950s generated more than $700,000 in contributions to the small college's endowment after Edwards suggested that viewers each send Jones a dollar for the fund.

During a "This Is Your Life" broadcast at Pearl Harbor in 1958 honoring Rear Adm. Samuel G. Fuqua, the last man to swim off the sinking battleship Arizona after the Japanese attack Dec. 7, 1941, an on-air appeal resulted in viewers contributing the seed money for the USS Arizona Memorial.

But celebrities were the show's big draw, and the original version of "This Is Your Life" honored a virtual who's who of old and new Hollywood, including Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante, Nat King Cole, Boris Karloff, Lou Costello, Rock Hudson, Myrna Loy, Debbie Reynolds, Mack Sennett, Frank Capra and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

The trick was to make sure the honorees were truly surprised when Edwards and his camera crew approached them.

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