The Three Robert Leightons
Behind the scenes at To Tell the Truth, the last of the great New York game shows.
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.
Adam Tanner has been a journalist with Reuters News Agency since 1995. He is now on leave serving as a fellow at Harvard University's Department of Government and writing a book on the business of personal data.