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11 Whammy-Free Facts About Press Your Luck

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The 1980s were the heyday of daytime game shows, and CBS’ Press Your Luck was a proto-game, ahead of its time—even being compared to the Titanic. From 1983 to 1986 (758 episodes), Peter Tomarken hosted the show, which featured three contestants who earned spins if they answered trivia questions correctly. If they did, they got to play the Big Board, which shuffled cash, trips, cars, jewelry, and other fine commodities. But if a contestant landed on a Whammy, the animated cartoon character appeared on screen and erased all of their money. At the time, Press Your Luck offered its contestants more cash than other game shows. In celebration of the 30th anniversary of its final original episode, here are 11 facts about one of the most exciting game shows of all time—no Whammies!

1. PRESS YOUR LUCK IS BASED ON A 1970S GAME SHOW CALLED SECOND CHANCE.

Bill Carruthers produced the show Second Chance, which ran from March to July of 1977. Hosted by Jim Peck, it aired on ABC, not CBS. The show was a precursor to Press Your Luck in that it had a board with monetary values and prizes, a devil-like mascot, and three contestants answering trivia questions. But the board wasn’t technologically advanced, and during the taping of the pilot episode, $5000 was the highest amount a contestant could win. After airing for 95 episodes, the show was canceled, but Carruthers found a way to retool the show into the more successful Press Your Luck. 

2. THE BIG BOARD WAS MADE UP OF SLIDES.

PressYourLuck.com explained that in order to get the dollar values to change, each square contained three different slides. With 18 squares total, that tallies 54 slides. “However, on the pilot episode, there were more than three slides because on some of the squares, there was more than one Whammy,” explains the article. “The reason slides were used was because when they changed, it had a morphing look.” The slides weren’t as big as they looked on TV—they were the size of a typical photo slide.

3. BETTER OFF DEAD WRITER-DIRECTOR SAVAGE STEVE HOLLAND ANIMATED THE WHAMMIES.

One of the best parts of watching Press Your Luck was seeing what kind of Whammy would appear when a contestant lost his or her loot. This website chronicles 79 different Whammies used on the show, including a Whammy on a flying carpet and a Whammy dressed as Ben Franklin. Before he became a filmmaker, Better Off Dead creator Savage Steve Holland dabbled in animation, and he’s the one who drew the aforementioned Whammies.

“I was asked by the producer Bill Carruthers to invent a bad creature that stole people’s money,” Holland told Collider. “I drew something on a napkin and the producer said, ‘That’s it!’ He did the voice, not me. I animated that little fella on the most primitive computer animation system on Earth. It was steam-powered. But I love my terribly animated Whammies!"

4. A CONTESTANT CAUSED ONE OF THE BIGGEST SCANDALS IN GAME SHOW HISTORY.

During the June 8 and June 11, 1984 episodes, a contestant named Michael Larson cheated the Press Your Luck system. He won $110,237 in cash and prizes, which remains one of the largest payouts from any game show. According to the 2003 Game Show Network (GSN) documentary Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal, the unemployed ice cream truck driver from Ohio spent months studying the light patterns of the Big Board and discovered a couple of squares always offered extra spins and no Whammies (he needed the bonus spins to continue his massive quest).

On the first spin of the first round, Larson did hit a Whammy, but he recovered. He ended up taking 46 Whammy-free spins, racking up a lot of dough and alarming producers. The documentary also revealed how Larson would celebrate victory as soon as he hit the button, before the value sign was revealed. Though the producers knew Larson had participated in foul play, they allowed him to keep his winnings. With those 47 spins, the episode became so long it had to be split into two episodes.

5. A WHAMMY ONCE STOLE $31,408 FROM A CONTESTANT.

Press Your Luck once had a winning cap of $25,000, but sometimes contestants—including Michael Larson—topped that. During the August 10, 1984  show, contestants Lori and Cathy spent several minutes passing each other spins—Lori passed to Cathy, she took her turns; she passed the remaining ones to Lori, Lori used them and passed them back to Cathy; and so on and so forth. At one point it got so intense that Peter Tomarken joked, “Somebody alert Cedars-Sinai [Hospital].” Both of them kept winning, almost $50,000 between them, until Cathy finally hit a Whammy and lost her entire accumulation of $31,408. The third contestant, Randy, ended up Whamming out, thus Lori became the big winner with $24,685.

6. TWICE, ALL THREE CONTESTANTS ENDED THE SHOW WITH NO MONEY.

The first time this happened was on November 26, 1984. Contestant Diane and returning champ Chris Whammied out, and Chris passed one spin to Dom, who had no choice but to take it. If he hadn’t hit a Whammy he would’ve gone home with $13,250. But since he lost, everybody returned the next day. Chris proved to be victorious and won the next three shows.  

The next time this happened wasn’t until a year and half later. The February 4, 1986 episode concluded with a three-way tie, but the contestants ended up with $0. Contestant Wayne hit a Whammy and lost $15,898. Dorothy took the lead with $10,366, and passed four spins to Joe. He lost his $6347 and passed two spins to Dorothy. If she didn’t hit a Whammy, she’d win; if she did, all three of them would get to come back the next day. As she said “No Whammies” in the split screen, Joe mouthed “Whammy,” hoping she would lose, which is exactly what happened. She was upset about her loss, but Joe and Wayne excitedly high-fived each other, as they knew they’d be back. For the first time in Press Your Luck history, all three players came back the next day (where Wayne won).

7. WINNING CONTESTANT MAGGIE SCHPAK DESIGNED JEWELRY FOR MOVIES.

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Maggie Schpak appeared on the March 9 and March 12, 1984 episodes, and an unaired pilot from 1983. In the pilot she goes by the name Maggie Brown, but on the other shows she’s Schpak. In her first aired appearance, she said she was the owner of “a metal shop in Hollywood. We make anything for space movies.” According to a DVD commentary for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, she designed the Vulcan jewelry, and according to another article, she designed Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews’ tiaras for The Princess Diaries. Schpak’s wild hair made her stand out to contestant Michael McSweeney, who proclaimed, “Everything about her was weird … Her hair looked like a rat’s nest.” Still, Schpak managed to beat McSweeney and become the champ with $12,932.

8. THE SHOW WAS BRIEFLY REVIVED AND REBRANDED IN 2002.

Coming back as Whammy! The All-New Press Your Luck, former E! Network correspondent Todd Newton took over hosting duties, and the graphics of the board and Whammies changed drastically from the 1980s, from drawn Whammies to 3-D generated Whammies (the former looked better than the latter). Tomarken was actually considered for host—two pilots were taped in 2002, one with Tomarken and one with Newton—but producers opted to go with a fresh face for the new series. Whammy!, which wasn’t a huge hit like its predecessor, aired on the Game Show Network from April 2002 to December 2003.

9. PETER TOMARKEN DIED IN A PLANE CRASH IN 2006.

On March 13, 2006, Tomarken was piloting his plane, a Bonanza A36, from Santa Monica to San Diego with his wife, when engine trouble caused it to crash into the Santa Monica Bay. The couple was volunteering for the charity Angel Flight West, which offered free flights for needy patients; the Tomarkens were on their way to San Diego to transport an ill patient to UCLA Medical Center.

10. FUTURE TALK SHOW HOST JENNY JONES APPEARED ON THREE EPISODES.

Before The Jenny Jones Show debuted in 1991, Jenny Jones was a game show contestant on Press Your Luck, The Price Is Right, and Match Game. On the January 28, 1985 episode of Press Your Luck, she told Tomarken she had just moved from Canada and become a U.S. citizen. (Notice her name tag is spelled “Jennie,” not “Jenny.”) She won the episode, taking home $10,622, only because the leader hit a Whammy. She won $8084 in the next episode (January 29, 1985), but lost the third time around.

11. BILL MURRAY ALMOST PLAYED MICHAEL LARSON IN A MOVIE.

In 2000 it was reported that Bill Murray would play Michael Larson in a film based on the infamous contestant. Howard Franklin, who worked with Murray on The Man Who Knew Too Little and Quick Change, was tapped to write and direct the movie, and Nicolas Cage was going to produce. Oddly enough, Murray was a trivia question on one of Jenny Jones' episodes.

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
12 Surprising Facts About Robin Williams
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA

Robin Williams had a larger-than-life personality. On screen and on stage, he embodied what he referred to as “hyper-comedy.” Offscreen, he was involved in humanitarian causes and raised three children—Zak, Zelda, and Cody. On July 16, HBO debuts the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film chronicles his rise on the L.A. and San Francisco stand-up comedy scenes during the 1970s, to his more dramatic roles in the 1980s and '90s in award-winning films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; Awakenings; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. The film also focuses on August 11, 2014, the date of his untimely death. Here are 12 surprising facts about the beloved entertainer.

1. ROBIN WILLIAMS GOT HIS START AT A COMEDY WORKSHOP INSIDE A CHURCH.

A still from 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' (2018)
HBO

After leaving Juilliard, Robin Williams found himself back in his hometown of San Francisco, but he couldn’t find work as an actor. Then he saw something for a comedy workshop in a church and decided to give it a shot. “So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo," he told NPR. "And then I started to realize, ‘Oh.’ [I started] building an act from there."

2. HE FORMED A FRIENDSHIP WITH KOKO THE GORILLA.

In 2001, Williams visited Koko the gorilla, who passed away in June, at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California. Her caregivers had shown her one of his movies, and she seemed to recognize him. Koko repeatedly signed for Williams to tickle her. “We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” Williams said of the encounter. On the day Williams died, The Foundation shared the news with Koko and reported that she fell into sadness.

3. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A MIME IN CENTRAL PARK.

In 1974, photographer Daniel Sorine captured photos of two mimes in New York's Central Park. As it turned out, one of the mimes was Williams, who was attending Juilliard at the time. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity,” Sorine said. In 1991, Williams revisited the craft by playing Mime Jerry in Bobcat Goldthwait’s film Shakes the Clown. In the movie, Williams hilariously leads a how-to class in mime.

4. HE TRIED TO GET LYDIA FROM MRS. DOUBTFIRE BACK IN SCHOOL.

As a teen, Lisa Jakub played Robin Williams’s daughter Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. “When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy,” Jakub wrote on her blog. “My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a ‘non-traditional’ student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.”

Sensing Jakub’s distress over the situation, Williams typed a letter and sent it to her school. “A student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” he wrote. “She should also be encouraged to return to the classroom when she’s done to share those experiences and motivate her classmates to soar to their own higher achievements … she is an asset to any classroom.”

Apparently, the school framed the letter but didn’t allow Jakub to return. “But here’s what matters from that story—Robin stood up for me,” Jakub wrote. “I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.”

5. HE WASN’T PRODUCERS' FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MORK ON MORK & MINDY.

Anson Williams, Marion Ross, and Don Most told The Hallmark Channel that a different actor was originally hired to play Mork for the February 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan,” which introduced the alien character to the world. “Mork & Mindy was like the worst script in the history of Happy Days. It was unreadable, it was so bad,” Anson Williams said. “So they hire some guy for Mork—bad actor, bad part.” The actor quit, and producer Garry Marshall came to the set and asked: “Does anyone know a funny Martian?” They hired Williams to play Mork, and from September 1978 to May 1982, Williams co-headlined the spinoff Mork & Mindy for four seasons.

6. HE “RISKED” A ROLE IN AN OFF-BROADWAY PLAY.

Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California
Michael Caulfield, Getty Images for PCA

In 1988, Williams made his professional stage debut as Estragon in the Mike Nichols-directed Waiting for Godot, which also starred Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. The play was held off-Broadway at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The New York Times asked Williams if he felt the show was a career risk, and he responded with: “Risk! Of never working on the stage again! Oh, no! You’re ruined! It’s like you're ruined socially in Tustin,” a town in Orange County, California. “If there’s risk, you can’t think about it,” he said, “or you’ll never be able to do the play.”

Williams had to restrain himself and not improvise during his performance. “You can do physical things,” he said, “but you don’t ad lib [Samuel] Beckett, just like you don’t riff Beethoven.” In 1996, Nichols and Williams once again worked together, this time in the movie The Birdcage.

7. HE USHERED IN THE ERA OF CELEBRITY VOICE ACTING.

The 1992 success of Aladdin, in which Williams voiced Genie, led to more celebrities voicing animated characters. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, “Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney’s 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin.” Since then, big names have attached themselves to animated films, from The Lion King to Toy Story to Shrek. Williams continued to do voice acting in animated films, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2.

8. HE FORGOT TO THANK HIS MOTHER DURING HIS 1998 OSCAR SPEECH.

In March 1998, Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In 2011, Williams appeared on The Graham Norton Show, and Norton asked him what it was like to win the award. “For a week it was like, ‘Hey congratulations! Good Will Hunting, way to go,'” Williams said. “Two weeks later: ‘Hey, Mork.’”

Then Williams mentioned how his speech accidentally left out one of the most important people in his life. “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience,” he said. “Even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years. [Mom voice] ‘You came through here [points to his pants]! How’s the award?’”

9. HE COMFORTED STEVEN SPIELBERG DURING THE FILMING OF SCHINDLER’S LIST.

At this year’s 25th anniversary screening of Schindler’s List, held at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg shared that Williams—who played Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook—would call him and make him laugh. “Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”

10. HE HELPED ETHAN HAWKE GET HIS AGENT.

During a June 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Ethan Hawke recalled how, while working on Dead Poets Society, Williams was hard on him. “I really wanted to be a serious actor,” Hawke said. “I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn’t want to laugh. The more I didn’t laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of me. ‘Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.’ And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn’t understand I was trying to do a good job.” Hawke had assumed Williams hated him during filming.

After filming ended, Hawke went back to school, but he received a surprising phone call. It was from Williams’s agent, who—at Williams's suggestion—wanted to sign Hawke. Hawke said he still has the same agent today.

11. HE WAS ALMOST CAST IN MIDNIGHT RUN.

In February 1988, Williams told Rolling Stone how he sometimes still had to audition for roles. “I read for a movie with [Robert] De Niro, [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest,” Williams said. “I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, ‘I can be as funny,’ but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it. But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.’”

In July 1988, Universal released Midnight Run. Just two years later, Williams finally worked with De Niro, on Awakenings.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND WILLIAMS USED TO TALK ON THE PHONE FOR HOURS.

Actors Robin Williams (L) and Billy Crystal pose at the afterparty for the premiere of Columbia Picture's 'RV' on April 23, 2006 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Starting in 1986, Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief to raise money for the homeless. Soon after Williams’s death, Crystal went on The View and spoke with Goldberg about his friendship with Williams. “We were like two jazz musicians,” Crystal said. “Late at night I get these calls and we’d go for hours. And we never spoke as ourselves. When it was announced I was coming to Broadway, I had 50 phone messages, in one day, from somebody named Gary, who wanted to be my backstage dresser.”

“Gary” turned out to be Williams.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres on Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

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Walt Disney Pictures
10 Facts About Hocus Pocus
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Bette Midler said she'd be interested in doing a Hocus Pocus sequel. "You have to go to send in your cards to the Walt Disney company," she said. "The ball's in their court." While you get those cards ready, here are some facts about the original, which arrived in theaters 25 years ago today.

1. THE STORY ORIGINATED AS A BEDTIME STORY.

The story for Hocus Pocus came about after writer David Kirschner invented a bedtime story for his kids. He later wrote the story up and submitted it to Muppet Magazine (why does this not still exist?), where it gained recognition.

2. THE WRITERS USED PROPS TO PITCH IT TO STUDIO EXECUTIVES.

Bette Midler in 'Hocus Pocus' (1993)
Walt Disney Pictures

To pitch the story to Disney, the writers had execs enter a dark room with broomsticks and a vacuum cleaner hanging from the ceiling. They also scattered 15 pounds of candy corn throughout the room in an effort to invoke Halloween nostalgia. It obviously worked!

3. IT WAS NOT AN IMMEDIATE HIT.

Though it’s a cult classic now, Hocus Pocus didn’t do that well when it first came out in 1993, perhaps because it was released in July instead of September or October. Though it didn’t have a terrible opening—$8,125,471, putting it in fourth place at the box office that weekend—it fell to $2,017,688 a few weeks later, and bad reviews from the critics didn’t help matters.

Entertainment Weekly was particularly put off by the movie, calling it a “piece of corny slapstick trash” and saying that “It’s acceptable scary-silly kid fodder that adults will find only mildly insulting. Unless they’re Bette Midler fans. In which case it’s depressing as hell.”

4. BETTE MIDLER LOVES IT.

Bette Midler, by the way, has said that Hocus Pocus is her favorite film out of all of the films she’s ever done. (At least as of 2008.) Thora Birch agreed, recently saying, “The most fun I ever had on a film was Hocus Pocus.”

5. KATHY NAJIMY LOVES IT, TOO.

Midler isn't the only star of the film who isn't immune to its allure: Kathy Najimy has said she watches the movie with her family every year on August 15.

6. IT COULD HAVE STARRED LEONARDO DICAPRIO.

The role of Max was originally offered to Leonardo DiCaprio. He turned it down to do What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

7. SARAH JESSICA PARKER IS RELATED TO A WOMAN FAMOUSLY ACCUSED OF BEING A WITCH.

Had Sarah Jessica Parker known then what she knows now, she might have approached the role of Sarah Sanderson a little differently. When the actress went on the show Who Do You Think You Are to trace her family history, Parker discovered that one of her ancestors was Esther Elwell, one of the women accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. After a young girl said she saw Esther’s “spectre” strangling neighbor Mary Fitch, Elwell was arrested, but escaped going to trial.

8. THORA BIRCH REVISITED THE NEIGHBORHOOD IN AMERICAN BEAUTY.

While the kids are prematurely celebrating victory against the Sanderson sisters after locking them in the kiln, they’re shown talking in front of a house as they walk to a park. The house was later used as the house Thora Birch’s character lived in for American Beauty.

9. THE KIDS WEREN'T HUGE FANS OF THE CATS.

The kids all hated working with the cats. Many different cats were used to represent Binx, and each one served a different purpose—one was good at cuddling with the kids, one would jump on command, etc. Every time a new cat was used, the children would have to coerce the kitty to trust them by using treats and a clicker. They got sick of it.

10. MUCH OF THE ORIGINAL CAST REUNITED FOR A 20TH REUNION.

Most of the cast participated in a 20th anniversary event for D23 (the Disney fan club) members. Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler were not in attendance, but pretty much everyone else was, including Kathy Najimy (Mary Sanderson), Vinessa Shaw (Allison), Omri Katz (Max), Thora Birch (Dani), and Doug Jones (Billy Butcherson). You can watch some of that reunion above.

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