The Three Robert Leightons

Behind the scenes at To Tell the Truth, the last of the great New York game shows.

Adam Tanner on To Tell the Truth
Adam Tanner on To Tell the Truth from the original 1978 New York broadcast

Still from NBC Studios 1978.

The last time I saw Robert Leighton, I was pretending to be him. In 1978, we became footnotes to the end of New York City’s game show era. He wore oversized tinted glasses with plastic frames, an orange shirt with wide lapels and a brown three-piece suit. A bowl of long hair rounded out his angular face. He brought his ventriloquist’s dummy, Woody, as a prop for his shot at the big time of television.

Now, more than three decades later, he had invited me over to his Upper East Side apartment to watch our episode of To Tell the Truth. We appeared on Feb. 28, 1978, the last day of taping for a show that had aired almost continually since 1956.

With the demise of its game shows by the late 1970s, New York City lost its imprint on this peculiar yet mostly beloved corner of American popular culture. No longer would New Yorkers randomly plucked from the streets appear on quirky shows announced by deep-voiced baritones. Sirens would no longer occasionally punctuate games recorded in theaters near busy city streets once production moved to dedicated studios in California.

The New York game shows followed the city’s popular radio shows of the 1930s and 1940s. Programs such as To Tell the Truth and What’s My Line, developed by former radio producers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, revolved around a “celebrity” panel. Local celebrities, bons vivants, and actors from Broadway a few blocks away traded mostly unscripted quips, delivering the sophistication of a New York cocktail party to the rest of America. Dressed in long ball gowns, veteran panelist Kitty Carlisle—who had appeared in the Marx Brothers’ 1935 movie A Night at the Opera—always seemed to be stopping off before her next high-society soiree. For me and another impostor, the show was a unique experience we’d dine out on for years. For Robert, his appearance would prove a crossroads in his professional life.

On Robert’s TV, in full, garish 1970s color, host Joe Garagiola introduced Robert to the world, reciting a short biography: “I, Robert Leighton, am a multi-threat man. First, I’m an author. I sold my first article when I was only 11 years old. Secondly, I’m a publisher. I specialize in satire.” 

“Next, I’m a cartoonist. I do all the covers and illustrations for my magazines. And finally, I’m a ventriloquist. For 10 years, I’ve been performing with my puppet, Woody. And when my true identity is revealed, Woody and I finally will have reached the big time when we entertain for the national television audience here on To Tell the Truth. Signed: Robert Leighton.”

In the show’s format, Robert served as the central character. A panel of minor celebrities interviewed three contestants claiming to be the same person. The impostors lied; the central character told the truth. At the end, the host would ask: “Will the real [whoever] please stand up.” If all four panelists failed to identify the central character, the contestants would share a modest cash prize. Main characters over the years included Theodor Seuss Geisel, Sir Edmund Hillary, Rosa Parks, and 1925 “monkey trial” defendant John Scopes. Con man Frank Abagnale Jr., appearing as the real contestant in 1977, did not receive a single vote after recounting his exploits.

A To Tell the Truth staffer learned of Robert Leighton from a feature in Long Island Newsday and thought his story, followed by a ventriloquist performance, would work for the show. They then turned to finding two impostors. Many ended up as To Tell the Truth impostors by chance. Its producers filmed five shows every Tuesday with two segments each and struggled to find the week’s 20 impostors. Show assistants would leave their Park Avenue offices to solicit New Yorkers who looked sort of like someone who might have sky-dived off the World Trade Center, or Groucho Marx’s son. Staffers scoured the line at Radio City Music Hall, subways, and bars for candidates. Some impostors later gained fame of their own, including Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry and actresses Cicely Tyson and Lauren Hutton. As a 9-year-old Dalton School student, Anderson Cooper, dressed in a massive furry hat and purple sequined uniform, presented himself as the world’s youngest bear trainer. 

I applied to appear after coming across a 1977 New York Magazine article titled “So You Want To Be a Quiz Kid?” The article mentioned six options including The $128,000 Question, The $20,000 Pyramid, and Bowling for Dollars. Many shows required contestants to be at least 18, but not To Tell the Truth. I was 13. I called the number given in the article—PL 1-0600.

I met Robert Leighton and his second impostor, an aspiring comedian named Peter Lehrman, a day before the taping in the Seagram Building offices of the Goodson-Todman production company. Their shows, including What’s My Line, Beat the Clock, and The Price Is Right, helped make New York City the center of the game show universe.

TV game shows soared in the 1950s before a scandal around rigged answers marred the industry. Goodson-Todman programs, which offered modest prizes, survived unscathed, and To Tell the Truth remained popular. Game shows eventually revived and then peaked in the mid-1970s.The producers taped at some of New York City’s most famous stages, including CBS’s Studio 52—which later became Studio 54—and the Ed Sullivan Theater. After leaving CBS in 1968, To Tell the Truth roared back to life the next year in a syndicated version, and took up residence in 1971 at NBC studios at 30 Rockefeller Center.

New York City went through hard times in the mid-1970s. Yet the New York panel game shows provided a link to the earliest days of television and radio before that, a world portrayed as one of glamor and urbane sophistication.

“I always considered it the golden time,” said Rae Pichon, who spent eight years finding the contestants for To Tell the Truth. “The game shows here in New York—What’s My Line, To Tell the Truth, all those shows—pretty much had regular people going on TV and having some fun. The people who were watching, and the people that were in the studio, they were really more sophisticated.”

Once the shows went to Hollywood, she added, things changed. “Out in LA, they’re in line with their zoris and their shorts, and they just want to come in out of the sun.”

The next morning I took the 30 Rock elevator to Studio 6A, later to be the home of David Letterman and Conan O’Brien. Contestants gathered in a small backstage area behind the flimsy-looking set. Because the producers feared contestants might falter under the studio lights, they staged a rehearsal, in contrast to most game shows. Substitute actors served as panelists, probing for the real Robert Leighton and giving Peter and me a chance to practice lying.

Later that morning, the camera rolled as the show’s signature music played, sung in a 1970s-style multipart harmony cuing us to emerge from backstage. … Truth, truth, truth, truth. You don’t know how to tell the truth, yeah!

A stage door opened. We followed taped arrows on the floor and took positions onstage. Dim lighting cast us as silhouettes. Peter, in a thick red-brown sweater, wiry hair, and similar glasses, reminded me of Woody Allen, whose film Annie Hall was still in theaters. Warned about the strong studio air conditioning, I wore a dark blue blazer whose sleeves were too short and no tie. My pencil-thin mustache I had recently grown anyway helped me look older than an 8th-grader. Robert was 17, a high school senior; Peter was 20 and in college. Even as an elementary school student at age 13, I was taller than them at 6’2”, so I thought I stood a chance to fool the panel.

Each of us announced: “My name is Robert Leighton.” Garagiola read the introduction citing Robert’s talents as an author, publisher, cartoonist, and ventriloquist. We took our seats and for the first time saw the panelists: Kitty Carlisle, Barry Nelson, Bill Cullen, and Peggy Cass. Earlier that day the staff told us if we saw any panelist backstage, we should avoid making eye contact, lest we reveal clues to our real identities.

Each panelist had one minute to ask questions before a buzzer sounded. The first round fell to Barry Nelson, who had earned a TV trivia footnote by becoming the first actor to portray James Bond in a 1954 TV version of Casino Royale. He wore a leather jacket and a checkered shirt with wide lapels plastered over the jacket collar. He turned to me first: “Number two, do you have, of these various favorite things that you do, do you have one favorite thing that you like doing?”

“Yeah, um, my favorite thing is to publish,” I said.

“Do the other kids get jealous of you; do they pick on you?”

“No, they sometimes give me ideas and they encourage my work.”

I appeared nervous but had not stumbled. Nelson next addressed Peter, who informed the panel that he had a C+ average in school. The audience reacted cautiously, hesitant to mock a mediocre student, but Peter’s “What, me worry?” manner opened the way to delayed laughter.

By contrast, Robert, contestant No. 1, answered dryly and seriously, without any hint of humor. He told the panel he published 17-20 pages an issue every other month, and sold his magazine through schools, local stores, and through the mail. The interrogation went by quickly—only four minutes in total—and then the panel voted. Barry Nelson and Kitty Carlisle voted for me. Game-show personality Bill Cullen and Broadway actress Peggy Cass voted for contestant three, Peter. “I just think that number three is really funny,” she said, “so why wouldn’t he do the funny magazine?”

As a second X lit up on Peter’s small display box on the desk in front of him, he broke into a broad smile and slapped both hands down onto the yellow shag countertop carpeting in front of us. We had stumped the panel, something that happened infrequently. We would share the $500 jackpot three ways. I used the money (about $625 in today’s dollars) to buy my first electric guitar, a copper-colored Danelectro.

We also received Sarah Coventry jewelry. Robert liked his men’s necklace so much that he later tossed it out of a moving car.

This was our real prize though: After the taping, Robert, Peter, and I sneaked onto the set of Saturday Night Live, in studio 8H two floors above, television’s fast-emerging rebel kingdom. The show by then was already more than two years old, having debuted at the peak of the game show era. Alan Kalter, the show’s announcer—best known today as the redhead baritone in the wings of Letterman’s Late Show, recalled that on occasion John Belushi and others would drop by studio 6A and loiter in the shadows during rehearsals, helping arm them with material to produce game show parodies.

Robert, Peter, and I climbed two flights up a private stairwell and gained easy access into 8H, with no guards or locks barring our visit. The Not Ready for Prime Time Players had the week off, so we could wander freely across the set. Two days earlier, O.J. Simpson had hosted. Behind the audience seating discarded scripts and large cue cards littered the floors and lined the back walls. We grabbed cue cards as souvenirs. Robert took a script taped to a camera for a segment of “The Nerds,” played by Bill Murray and Gilda Radner. He still has it.

I had long ago misplaced the cue cards, but when I visited Robert at his apartment, I brought over one memento of that day I had found in the basement: an orange slab of cardboard, marked “2” in magic marker. Kitty Carlisle gave it to me at the conclusion of the show after voting for me. He lit up seeing this and some materials the show had sent me as we remembered a day that changed our lives—and that also marked the end of the New York game show era.

*    *    *

Later that afternoon, after the last of the five tapings, the cast and crew secretly marked the show’s demise. To Tell the Truth had run every season since 1969 in syndication, but by 1978—1,715 syndicated episodes later—audience tastes were changing.

New York City was washed up as the game show mecca. Eventually all the major remaining game shows ended or moved out West, lured by the celebrities and modern—and cheaper—facilities in dedicated television studios far from the crowded streets of New York. Many of the West Coast productions—take for example The Gong Show—had a very different Californian vibe. Even New York City game show veterans such as Bill Cullen eventually accepted the inevitable and packed up and headed west. Since To Tell the Truth’s last run in New York, the Los Angeles area has dominated the few enduring big game shows, with Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune filmed on the West Coast. Who Wants To Be a Millionaire is a lonely New York holdout.

As producers sold different seasons of To Tell the Truth to regional markets to air on different days, they did not announce its end. On the very last show, Garagiola cryptically signed off with what he called a different kind of goodbye “known only to us.”

Even decades later, Garagiola waxes nostalgic. “The honesty and integrity of that show is what made it click,” he said. “There was no ‘reality,’ no staging, no this, no that, it was just straight fun.”

*    *    *

Watching our episode at his Upper East Side apartment, Robert Leighton noted Peter’s ease at deflecting the panel’s questions with humor. “He’s just audacious in the way he’s answering the questions, he’s so glib,” Robert said. When we spoke by phone, Peter admitted some additional preparation that facilitated his easy style: “I think I got high between the rehearsal and the show.”

After we stumped the panel, Peter announced his real identity on air: “My name is Peter Lehrman, and I really would like to write comedy.” Peter, in the end, became an IT talent recruiter. I became a journalist for Reuters, posted all over Europe and Russia.

Robert had once hoped to make ventriloquism an important part of his career. After we stumped the panel, he returned alone with his puppet Woody to tell corny jokes. When the old recording got to this part of the show, Robert cringed: “This I have a hard time watching.”

Garagiola gave him the thumbs up: “He’s really a clever young man.” Peter, his fellow contestant, was less charitable. “May you live to be as old as your material,” Robert recalled Peter writing him in a letter after the show. “But he was right. I was taking things from the back of joke books.” All these years later, Robert recalled Peter’s disdain. “Peter was completely unimpressed with me,” he said. “He couldn’t believe that I was on the show.”

Robert walked me over to his apartment office where cabinets hold rows of his inked, single-frame cartoon drawings. A decade ago Robert sold a cartoon to The New Yorker for the first time. Every week since, he has submitted 10 cartoons, by fax or by hand, to cartoon editor Robert Mankoff in The New Yorker offices every Tuesday. The magazine has published about 80 of his cartoons in the past decade.

“It wasn’t obvious to us three kids at the time, but we were witnessing the end of an era,” he said, reflecting on our experience. “I mean, Kitty Carlisle walks out wearing an evening gown. For a game show. How long could they keep that up?”