As captivating TV, ticktacktoe would seem to fall somewhere between Go Fish and tiddlywinks. But on Oct. 17, 1966, NBC erected an 18-foot-high grid of x’s and o’s that changed the way the game-show business was played. Hollywood Squares brought glitz to a genre that had previously been little more than visible radio — and became one of TV’s most popular, longest-running game shows.
Before Squares, producers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman dominated the TV game-show landscape with drab-looking contests featuring Broadway second-raters (Kitty Carlisle) and other New York society lights of low wattage (columnist Dorothy Kilgallen). Squares boasted a flashier set, often featuring such names as Helen Hayes, Jimmy Stewart, and Walter Matthau. But the heart of the show was its beloved regulars. ”Squares was cast as a play,” explains host Peter Marshall. There was the curmudgeon (Charley Weaver), the egghead (Wally Cox), the wry comic (Paul Lynde), the aging single gal (Rose Marie), and the ingenue (Karen Valentine), among others. They turned Marshall’s trivia questions into straight lines. Though contestants had to determine whether the stars’ answers were true, the match didn’t matter so much as the irreverent banter. For instance, Lynde was asked, ”Who was known during World War II as Old Blood and Guts?” His reply: ”Barbara Stanwyck.” Not every response was ad-libbed, it turned out; in 1968 the FCC charged Squares with misleading the public by coaching celebs. ”That was ridiculous,” Marshall fumes. ”The stars got bluffs and they got jokes. But they never got answers. That would’ve taken the fun out of it.” (To placate authorities, though, Marshall later added a disclaimer.)
Squares prompted other shows to pump up the wisecracks and the star power. The daytime Squares ran until 1980, while a syndicated evening version ran from 1971 to 1982; Marshall earned five Emmys, and the show took four. A new, jokier edition of Squares, hosted by John Davidson, debuted in 1986 but lasted only three seasons. By the late ’80s, talk shows had edged out celebrity game shows altogether.
Syndicator King World and Roseanne have expressed interest in reviving Squares, but so far the efforts have come to naught. ”To do Squares again would be very difficult,” says Marshall. ”You have to build a family of performers. It takes time.” At least one former square occupant is probably available — and, surprisingly, he first appeared on the show as a young contestant. His name? O.J. Simpson. And that’s no bluff.