TV Pioneer Ralph Edwards Dies

Ralph Edwards stands near the window in his Hollywood office in Los Angeles with Mann's Chinese Theater in the background on Sept. 16, 1999. Edwards, host of the popular 1950s "This Is Your Life" television show, died Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2005, of heart failure, his publicist said. He was 92.(
AP
Broadcasting pioneer Ralph Edwards, who spotlighted stars and ordinary people as host of the popular 1950s show "This Is Your Life," died Wednesday of heart failure. He was 92.

Edwards, whose career as producer and host included "Truth or Consequences" and "People's Court," died in his sleep in his West Hollywood home, publicist Justin Seremet said.

Edwards first hit it big in radio in 1940 with "Truth or Consequences," a novelty show in which contestants who failed to answer trick questions the "truth" had to suffer "the consequences" by performing some elaborate stunt.

Then came television. The Federal Communications Commission approved commercial broadcasts beginning on July 1, 1941, after a few years of experimental broadcasts, and NBC's New York station was the first to make the changeover.

"Amazingly enough, I did 'Truth or Consequences' on television in July 1941. It was the first commercial show for NBC," Edwards recalled.

"A 10-second commercial was $9," he said.


Click here to listen to a CBS News Radio Podcast on Edwards' life.

The United States' entry into World War II five months later disrupted TV's progress. "Truth or Consequences," which prospered on radio in the interim, returned to television in 1950.

Earlier that same year, the citizens of little Hot Springs, N.M., voted 1,294-295 to change the town's name to Truth or Consequences. Edwards had promised to broadcast the radio show from the town that agreed to the change.

"In those days, nothing seemed impossible," he once said.

"Truth or Consequences" later launched the career of Bob Barker, tabbed by Edwards as master of ceremonies in 1956. Barker, who went on to host "The Price Is Right," on Wednesday hailed Edwards as "one of the finest men I have ever met and a gentleman about whom I have never heard a word of criticism."

"This Is Your Life" also was born on radio and then migrated to television, running on NBC-TV from 1952 to 1961. It featured guests, many of them celebrities, who were lured in on a ruse, then surprised by Edwards announcing, "This is your life!" Relatives and old friends then would be brought on to reminisce about the guest.

Among the people he caught unaware were Marilyn Monroe, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Bob Hope, Andy Griffith, Buster Keaton, Barbara Eden, Bette Davis, Shirley Jones, Jayne Mansfield and Carol Channing.

But not all guests were entertainers. A 1953 episode profiled Hanna Bloch Kohner, a survivor of the Holocaust.

"At least half of our guests were ordinary people," Edwards said. "In the beginning we didn't use celebrities at all. But when we did, I think it humanized the stars and gave them more appeal."

Edwards said he and his staff used all kinds of subterfuge to surprise guests. Some would run away and be pulled back, all in fun, but broadcaster Lowell Thomas made headlines when he refused to play along on a 1959 show.

"He saw instantly what was going on, and nobody puts anything over on Lowell Thomas," Edwards recalled years later. "He tore the show apart. I said, 'You're going to enjoy this,' and he said, 'I doubt that very much."'

"His third-grade teacher said he knew every rock and rill in the Rockies. And he said, 'Yeah, and I knew every saloon, too,"' Edwards recalled. "The rating kept going up during the show as people called their friends to tune in."