Most people know Monty Hall from his brilliant game show, Let’s Make a Deal. Others know him because of the famous math puzzle/paradox known as The Monty Hall Problem (definitely worth a click over and reading about if you’re a math geek). But you might also know Monty as the emcee of shows like Beat the Clock and Split Second. Trivia buffs might know him as one of only two game show hosts with stars on both Hollywood and Canada’s respective Walks of Fame. (Can you name the other?) Or you may know Monty as the father of Broadway star/actress Joanna Gleason, who won a Tony for Into the Woods (I also loved her in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors). You may also know Monty from his guest appearance on shows such as Love Boat, The Odd Couple, The Wonder Years, Hollywood Squares, That 70s Show, or Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
However you know Monty Hall, I’m sure you never had the experience of getting this up close and personal with him. So click on through for my in-depth interview with him about his life and Let’s Make a Deal, as well as some more fun Let’s Make a Deal clips.
DI: First let me say that Let’s Make a Deal was one of my favorite game shows when I was growing up and I still love watching it today on GSN. I frequently lament the lack of good humor and fun in today’s programming, as I’m sure many of us do. And while I want to ask you a pantload of questions about Let’s Make a Deal, let’s go back a little first. Certainly you had a life before the show. Tell us a little about your upbringing, where you’re from, where you went to school, what you majored in, etcetera.
MH: I was born in Winnipeg and got my Bachelors of Science from the University of Manitoba, where I studied chemistry and zoology. I couldn’t get into medical school after completing my undergraduate degree. But I’d always starred in the school musicals and plays, so I went into radio broadcasting. I hosted some shows and wrote others. In Toronto I had a successful show on where listeners had to guess a mystery person by writing in through the mail. Each night I’d give another clue until someone got it. We got a lot of mail for that show. I also created shows for Colgate Palmolive. When TV came along, I thought I’d get in on the ground floor and be a big star in Canada but I couldn’t find work. So in 1955 I moved to New York City to try my luck there.
DI: Eventually you made your way out to Hollywood and sold your first television game show, Your First Impression. How did that one work?
MH: There were 3 panelists and five celebrity photos. One of the celebrities was in a booth, revealed to audience, but not to the panelists. Their job was to figure out which celebrity was on the show by playing a free association game. They’d say things like, ‘It bothers me when________’ or ‘I never forget the first time I _____________.’ Eventually a pattern would start to evolve and they’d figure it out. Then they’d have to show their logic, how they figured it out. ‘So-and-so would never say something like that,’ and so forth.
DI: The second show you sold was Let’s Make a Deal, which you emceed, of course. Your producing partner was Steve Hatos. How did you two come up with the idea for the show?
MH: We were kicking around ideas. I told Steve about a show I’d done in Canada where I’d walk into the audience and ask them for crazy things, which was a big hit. I’d say, ‘If you have a hard boiled egg on you, I’ll give you $100,’ and so forth. It was the last 7 minutes of my show in Canada. Steve liked the idea and he said he wanted to do a show about the Lady and a Tiger. You have your choice of two tents, if you pick the right tent, you get the lady; pick the wrong tent, you get the tiger. So that became the basis for the three doors. And then we started talking about buying and selling and trading. So we brought a rubber chicken for the zonk, a few envelopes for the curtains or doors and started playing the game around town whenever we could. And everywhere we went and played it, it was a hit. People loved to trade for the unknown. We did it for a senator; we did it for a Latter-day Saints quilting bee for 9 ladies at 8 o’clock in the morning in the West Valley; we did it at a supermarket — and everywhere it was a smash.
DI: So you pitched it to which network first?
MH: First we went to ABC and invited an audience to come in. And a few hundred people showed up. When the show was over, we got a standing ovation. I’m feeling like a million bucks and walk in the back room where my partner is waiting and my agent and the studio execs and they’ve all got glum faces. I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ My partner said, ‘The studio doesn’t like the show.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding?! They’re still standing out there.’ He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, but they don’t know what we’re going to do on the second day.’ I said, ‘You do the same thing with variations! What kind of question is that?! What do all shows do the second day!’ I was so upset, we went across to the Carriage House and I had two martinis… and I don’t drink.
DI: Hilarious. So then you took it to NBC?
MH: Exactly. We did the same thing again a few weeks later and got the same reaction. Another standing ovation. And again the execs said, ‘What do you do the second day?’ We were in shock. Two different audiences, same reaction, and nothing.
DI: But you had a savior this time in Bob Aaron, one of the NBC executives, right?
MH: That’s right. He went back to New York and pushed and pushed and pushed. So we finally shot the pilot in April 1963. And again, no one would pick it up. No one would touch it. Then, months passed, and in October or so they decided to replace a show that wasn’t doing well with our show and asked us to get it ready by Jan 1st. When we finally got our chance, we were an immediate hit
DI: I guess you figured out what to do for the second episode.
MH: For 4,700 episodes.
DI: So let’s talk about the show. Who came up with the fantastic idea that the contestants would dress up?
MH: The contestants themselves. You see, in the beginning, people came dressed in suits and dresses just like on any other show. But when they realized I was picking people in the audience at random, one woman came with a sign that said, ‘Roses are red violets are blue, I came here to deal with you.’ And I picked her. Well, the next week, everyone had a sign. Then they started wearing costumes and NBC said, ‘What are you going to do about this mob scene outside? It looks like Halloween out there.’ I thought it was very pictorial. I said, ‘We’re on television and that makes a good picture. It’s a different kind of an audience out there! It’s colorful. It’s new. It’s fun. Why not? Let them do what they want!’ Would you believe we had to fight off NBC’s protests?
DI: After learning that you had to pay for the cars you gave away, sure, I’d believe anything. That seemed like such easy, free advertising for the car companies. Tell our readers how it worked.
MH: Every new car we gave away we bought at wholesale. They didn’t give them to us for advertising. If a car was $5,000, they’d take 500 off the price every time we mentioned it on the show. If it was a nighttime show, they’d take $2,000 off the price of the car. But it was never free.
DI: What were some of the challenges you faced doing the show?
MH: There was no script. You’re running up and down the aisle thinking about the deal, the ramifications, the permutations, what if he says no, what if he says yes, what if he goes for this door or that. All that is going through your mind while you’re conversing with the contestant. You have to know where the prizes are. You have to know what the deal is. You know what you’re going to do, depending on what they chose, you improvise from there. It’s a murderous show for an emcee to do. Sometimes a door or curtain would accidentally open before it was supposed to, while I was making a deal. And we’d have to pay for those mistakes.
DI: On and off, you were with Let’s Make a Deal for 27 years. Ever get hurt?
MH: I sure did. I had to learn to hold the mic in a certain way to fend them off. They used to jump at me. They wanted to kiss me. People jumped on me wearing a box and the corner would hit me under the nose. Some had football helmets on that would hit me in the head. It was dangerous. One time I got pushed down the stairs into the seats.
DI: After all those episodes, you must have perfected the art of figuring out what motivated people to trade in what they had.
MH: It was something we talked about all the time. We eve had a research team from the psychology dept at Yale that tried to figure out what motivated a person to make the trade. It’s not greed. At the end of the show when I get two people to go for the big deal, if a contestant had already won a TV set during the show, they’ll give it up to go for the big deal if they already have a new TV set at home. Others have a philosophy like: this is my chance to make a killing. Where else are they going to get a chance to do that? I’m going for it. One time, a woman came on show from out of town. She won herself $200 and I was ready to get her to the next part of the deal but she quit. That was it for her. After the show, I asked her why. She said, ‘My husband is sick. I took a bus to town. I took another bus to the studio to get to the show. I stood in line. They picked me for the floor. I got called. I made $200, which to me is precious; I’m not going to give it up. I want to go home with my $200.’ To her $200 was everything; to another $1,400 is nothing. He wants to go for broke.
DI: You must have enjoyed meeting all those people over the years.
MH: For me, the best part was the contestants reactions when the door opened to reveal a) a great prize or b) a zonk. That was the basis for the entire show: Would you give up what you have and go for the unknown. That was it. And I enjoyed every minute of it. The audience and contestants were always new and I loved their reactions.