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New 'Life' for '50s Reality Program

by Josef Adalian

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Ralph Edwards was the creator and host of

'This Is Your Life.'

ABC is reviving a 1950s reality chestnut, pacting with Fox TV Studios (FTVS) to produce a new version of "This Is Your Life." Hosted and produced by Ralph Edwards, the original 'Life' aired on NBC for nine years in the 1950s and was designed by Edwards to be inspirational rather than voyeuristic.

Given the ABC's current feel-good formula for unscripted fare ("Extreme Makeover: Home Edition"), the network was a no-brainer to host the revival. "It was the right meeting of the minds," said Holly Jacobs, executive vice president for alternative development for Fox Television Studios.

Jacobs added that Fox Television Studios planned to keep the core of 'Life' intact. "We're going to be true to what was great about this show," she said. "It doesn't need to be (modernized). What's great about the show is that it has an authenticity to it at a time when people are looking for things that are very authentic."

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Actress Maureen O'Hara appeared on 'This Is Your Life' with

her parents, Charles and Marguerita FitzSimons in 1957.

Along with "Candid Camera," the original 'Life' -- which surprised both celebrities and civilians by bringing back faces from their past -- represented one of the medium's early forays into reality television. Perhaps for competitive reasons, ABC and Fox TV Studios are keeping quiet about what changes, if any, will be made to the 'Life' format. Jacobs even declined to say whether the new take would focus on celebrities, non-pros or both.

FTVS vice president Mindy Moore ("The Family") will serve as executive producer, working along with executive vice president for alternative development Holly Jacobs. Fred Siegel, Jon Vein, Gary Edwards and Barbara Dunn-Leonard will also sign on as executive producers. Jacobs credited Moore with getting Fox TV Studios into the idea of bringing back the retro reality program.

Reviving "This Is Your Life" appears to be serendipity. Jacobs noted, "From the moment Mindy Moore joined us in January, this was on her mind." Turns out that at the same time FTVS was mulling a 'Life'-like series, the Ralph Edwards group was meeting with high-level producers all over town about reviving the original franchise, Jacobs said. "We jumped into the competition with a vengeance," he added.

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Funnyman Milton Berle appeared on 'This Is Your Life' with host, Ralph Edwards.

"This is Your Life" was the creation of host Ralph Edwards, who was also the host of radio's popular "Truth or Consequences." In a 1946 radio broadcast of 'Consequences,' Edwards presented a capsule narrative of the past life of a disabled World War II veteran who was having difficulties adjusting to post-war life.

Edwards received such positive feedback from the show that he developed the formula for a separate radio program called "This is Your Life." The new reality-based programming began airing on radio in 1948. After a four-year stint on the radio, 'Life' moved to a live television program in 1952. The show aired as a half-hour weekly series on NBC until 1961.

Edwards revived the show for syndication twice, in the early 1970s and 1980s with actor Joseph Campanella as host. American Movie Classics (AMC) also aired repeats of the originals in the late 1980s. Fox TV Studios and the Edwards estate pacted to develop the project jointly in July and began pitching it to the networks earlier this month. No timetable for airing the project was revealed.

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Philbin gets new 'Life' with ABC

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Regis Philbin

Regis Philbin is returning to ABC prime time next year, this time as host of the network's revival of "This Is Your Life." Philbin released a statement exclaiming his excitement on the new television project, "My network needs me! I'm there! 'This Is Your Life' was always one of my favorite shows."

"This Is Your Life" was a prototypical reality show that began on radio in the late 1940s and was a staple of television's infancy. The show details the life story of its guests, complete with surprise walk-on appearances by long-lost relatives or other influential people in their lives.

The original series, which featured a mix of celebrities and everyday people as its testimonial subjects, was hosted by its producer, Ralph Edwards. "The show is a roller-coaster of emotions -- there's comedy, anticipation, tears of joy -- and no one can take an audience on that ride better than Regis," said ABC executive vp alternative programing Andrea Wong.

Philbin's long association with ABC most recently included his stint as host of the wildly popular primetime game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" from 1999-2002. He co-hosts the syndicated morning show, "Live With Regis & Kelly," which has been carried by most ABC-owned stations since 1989.

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Broadcasting Pioneer Ralph Edwards

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Ralph Edwards was the creator and host of

'This Is Your Life.'

WEST HOLLYWOOD, California - Broadcasting pioneer Ralph Edwards, who spotlighted stars and ordinary people as host of the popular 1950s show "This Is Your Life," died Wednesday, November 15 of heart failure. Edwards, whose career as producer and host included "Truth or Consequences" and "People's Court," died in his sleep in his West Hollywood home. He was 92.

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, NBC's New York station was the first to make the changeover, according to Edwards' publicist Justin Seremet. In an early interview, Edwards recalled, "Amazingly enough, I did 'Truth or Consequences' on television in July 1941. It was the first commercial show for NBC." He explained, "A 10-second commercial was $9."

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Bob Barker (left) and Ralph Edwards

celebrating 'Truth or Consequences'

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, New Mexico, 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," 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.

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'This Is Your Life' Host Ralph Edwards presents funnyman Milton

Berle with a flashback of his life with reminisces by relatives and

friends in June, 1956.

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, Carol Channing and Milton Berle.

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.

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Ralph Edwards

"He tore the show apart. I said, 'You're going to enjoy this,' and he said, 'I doubt that very much,'" Edwards reminisced. "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."

According to the reference book, "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows," one person was off limits for the surprise treatment: Edwards himself. He told staff members he would fire every one of them if they put him on.

Both 'Truth' and "This Is Your Life" have periodically returned to television in syndicated form. Just last week, it was announced that a new version of "This is Your Life," with Regis Philbin ("Live with Regis and Kelly") as host, is planned by ABC. Philbin previously was host of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" for the network.

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Ralph Edwards

Over the years, Edwards kept himself busy as a producer. Edwards had a hand in other shows, producing or creating "Name That Tune," "Cross Wits," "Superior Court," "It Could Be You," "Place the Face," "About Faces," "Funny Boners," "End of the Rainbow," "Who in the World," "The Woody Woodbury Show" and "Wide Country." In the '80s, Ralph Edwards Productions' show, "The People's Court" made a star of retired Judge Joseph A. Wapner.

"We've seen many changes and enjoyed them all," Edwards said in a 1999 interview. "I still find 'live' the most exciting, particularly for my type of shows." Edwards broke into radio in 1929 in Oakland as a 16-year-old high school student. He worked at KROW and KFRC in San Francisco while attending college at the University of California at Berkeley.

"The changes in both radio and television are mind-boggling," Edwards said. He recalled that until 1948 his radio version of "Truth or Consequences" was done twice each Saturday, once for the east coast and again three hours later for the West Coast. "We would use the same script, but all new contestants," he said.

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Ralph and Barbara Edwards

Edwards said he went back to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, dozens of times over the years. Besides changing the name, townspeople made Edwards an honorary member of the Sheriff's Posse. The name continues a half-century later. Periodic efforts to reverse the change failed.

"I am truly proud of my namesake city and have enjoyed a wonderful association throughout the years," he said. He also appeared in several motion pictures: "Seven Days Leave," "Radio Stars on Parade," "Bamboo Blonde," "Beat the Band," "I'll Cry Tomorrow," "Manhattan Merry-Go-Round" and "Radio Stars of 1937."

Edwards' wife, Barbara, died in 1993 after 53 years of marriage. Their children are a son, Gary, who worked with Edwards; and two daughters, Christine and Laurie. A memorial service was set for December 1.

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