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The Early Game Show Appearances of 10 Future Stars

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1. Mel Harris

In 1979 future thirtysomething star Mary Ellen Harris (her real name, as we found out) competed on the $20,000 Pyramid. She gave her occupation as a “professional dog trainer,” a resume bullet point that seems to be missing from all her official biographies. Mel was a fierce competitor, but she missed the big money payoff by that much (picture my thumb and index finger almost meeting).

2. Dr. Joyce Brothers

Pop psychologist Joyce Brothers would eventually become a regular on the talk show circuit, but in 1955 she was a newly minted PhD and a stay-at-home-mom trying to make ends meet on the $50 per month her husband received for his medical residency. Intelligent and attractive, she decided that a game show might be a quick fix to her family’s financial dilemma.

The folks at The $64,000 Question found her camera-friendly and affable enough, but she needed to choose an appropriately “inappropriate” category (the show’s “hook” was strange juxtapositions, as in the Marine drill sergeant who was an expert on opera) in which to compete in order to secure a slot on the show. She chose boxing (her husband was a fan) and then proceeded to cram like a graduate student on steroids. Given six weeks to prepare, she went to the publisher of Ring magazine and picked up every issue they’d ever printed. Then her husband approached the producer of the Great Fights of the Century films and was allowed to borrow the reels. Her dogged determination paid off, for not only did she win the top prize, her appearance on the show led to interest from other TV hosts and soon her face was a fixture on the small screen.

3. John Ritter

He was just a college student majoring in drama when he appeared as Bachelor Number Three on The Dating Game back in 1967, but watch this clip and see if “Jack Tripper” wasn’t already in the making.

4. Naomi Judd

In 1972 Diana Ciminella was a recently divorced single mom working at a health food restaurant on the Sunset Strip trying to support her two daughters, Christina and Ashley. Homesick for her family back in Ashland, Kentucky, she decided to exploit her perky personality and proximity to the major TV studios and auditioned for several game shows in order to earn airfare back home. She became a champion contestant on Hollywood Squares, but was eliminated on her third day of Password competition thanks to celebrity teammate Peter Lawford’s indulgence of pre-show cocktails. Diana did earn enough scratch to get back home, where several years later she and daughter Christina would, as Naomi and Wynonna Judd, have a bit of success in the country music field.

5. Kirstie Alley

When Kirstie Alley appeared on both Match Game and Password Plus in 1979, she gave her occupation as “interior designer.” That was a bit of a stretch, seeing as the last design firm she’d worked for was back in her hometown of Wichita, Kansas, and even then she’d had no credentials or experience and often wondered why the owner of Dean’s Designs not only hired her but had kept her on board after many serious screw-ups.

6. Heather Graham

Sixteen-year-old Heather described herself as an “aspiring actress” when she appeared as a contestant during a 1986 special Teen Week of Scrabble. The blonde, blue-eyed ingénue had already appeared in a few TV commercials, but her onscreen bantering with Chuck Woolery caught the attention of casting directors and she landed a part in a two-episode story arc on Growing Pains the following year.

7. Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman)

Even though he’s appearing as part of a duo called “Betty and Eddie,” listen carefully and you can hear Chuck Barris say “Thanks, Paul” as the pair leaves the stage of The Gong Show. (“Betty” was Charlotte McGinnis, Reubens’ Groundlings comedy partner at the time. Sadly, she passed away in 2006.)

8. Vanna White

Future letter-turner White’s first public game show exposure came in June 1980 when her name was called to join Contestant’s Row on The Price Is Right. Vanna never made it onstage, but her T-shirt caught the attention of TPIR staffers nonetheless.

9. Kellie Martin

Despite the title, Card Sharks wasn’t really about poker or blackjack; the only “gambling” involved was guessing whether the next card revealed would be higher or lower than the previous one. During a special Youth Week competition future Life Goes On star (and Lifetime Original Movie staple) Kellie Martin won $2,400 in the Money Cards bonus game. Only 11 years old at the time, her dream was to be a director when she grew up.

10. Phyllis Diller

You Bet Your Life was a game show in name only; it was really just an excuse for host Groucho Marx to exchange quips with his guests for 30 minutes. As a result, the contestant coordinators tried to get a mix of average Americans who people-next-door yet not quite run-off-the mill. Thus a housewife from Lima, Ohio, with aspirations for a career in comedy landed her first national TV spot.

Today is October 10, 2010—10.10.10! To celebrate, we've got all our writers working on 10 lists, which we'll be posting throughout the day and night. To see all the lists we've published so far, click here.

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The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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