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Who's Bill Cullen?

The Cullen family were poor coal miners in Avoca, County Wicklow, Ireland. Lawrence Cullen left in the 1840s during the Potato Famine, settling in Durham County, England, where his sons followed him into the coal mines to make a living. The last of his seven children, born three months after Lawrence's death, would take the name Lawrence, and like the rest of his family, make his way into the mines.


The second generation Lawrence Cullen would do his coal mining in America, emigrating in 1882 to Houtzdale, Pennsylvania. He was also the father of two boys, Thomas Lawrence Cullen (b. 1885) and William Charles Cullen (b. 1887). In the 1900 census, both sons are listed as coal miners. The family moved to Pittsburgh in 1902 for a new line of work: steel. It could be just as grueling as coal mining in many way, but it was cleaner and safer. By the 1910 census, the entire family had gone into steel mills, except for William Charles, who had a comfortable office job as a stock clerk.


By the end of the decade, William had lost his brother Thomas, younger sister Sarah, and his sister-in-law Mary Elizabeth. William also changed careers, working as an automotive mechanic. On February 18, 1920, William and his wife Lillian welcomed a son, William Lawrence Cullen, or "Bill" as he'd be know. 


At 18 months of age, Bill developed polio and was left with a permanent limp (something he later tried to hide on camera with varying degrees of success).   He wore a brace on one leg until he was ten.

Bill Cullen 1928 school photo

He attended South High School in Pittsburgh, where he earned a reputation for entertaining antics.  He hosted student assemblies, clowned at school spelling bees, organized fund-raising shows and published his own school paper when he disagreed with the policy of the official one.  He got along without the brace, but he was not allowed to take part in high school sports.  "I did fine on the back lot," he said later.  "Maybe I ran a lot slower, but I hit the ball a lot harder."

Bill wrote about his limp in a 1957 magazine article:


"Like thousands of other youngsters, I was stricken with polio as a child.  Even with the wonderful care I received from my parents and doctors, I still carry the scars of this experience.  Somehow, it never got me down.  That's why I would rather not have people who see me limp along show any pity, distress or compassion - since I don't feel this way about my physical condition." 

During his senior year in high school, he developed an interest in midget auto racing, one of the scores of hobbies he would pursue over his life.  At one point he dropped out of high school and briefly raced professionally, but under pressure from his parents he went back for his diploma.  He later attended the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied medicine.

To pay tuition, Bill went to work in his father's garage.  While changing tires and tuning engines, he kept customers and co-workers entertained with his impressions of well known radio personalities.  The way several newspaper and magazine profiles of Bill tell it, Bill got noticed by a radio manager and was offered the chance to perform on his station, albeit in an unpaid role.  However, around this same time, Bill also attended a local broadcasting school called Microphone Playhouse, which would no doubt have allowed him certain contacts in local radio.

In any case, Bill first got the chance to perform for a radio audience on The 1500 Club, an overnight program on tiny WWSW in Pittsburgh. He began as a frequent, though unpaid guest on the program, eventually working his way into a position as a salaried announcer. 

Like most employees of a small station, Bill handling a variety of roles including news, record spinning and sports coverage.  He later moved to the larger station KDKA where his duties included hosting a local variety show.  During at least part of that time, Bill continued to take classes at the University of Pittsburgh but dropped out before receiving a degree. 

He moved to New York in 1944 and almost immediately was hired by CBS as an announcer.  Modestly, he said, "I only got the job because all the top guys were in the Army."  For a time, Bill's bachelor pad was a room in the Dauphin Hotel. During this early period in his career Bill also did some writing, creating quips for the likes of Arthur Godfrey, Milton Berle and Danny Kaye.

Though his career as a comedy writer was brief and unspectacular, it proved crucial for making connections. One of the writers that Bill collaborated with was an up-and-coming producer named Bill Todman (he's the other man standing behind the piano in the adjacent photo).


In 1946 he got his first big break filling in as the host of the radio quiz Winner Take All.  That program was not only notable as the show that launched Bill's career, it was also the first program produced by the new partnership of Mark Goodson and Bill Todman. Bill's association with their company would span almost forty years.

Though Bill expected that his disability would keep him restricted to radio, he surprised even himself by transitioning into television in 1949. Bill wasn't self-conscious about the way he looked when he walked. He was the first one to acknowledge that he looked a little strange when he was in motion. He freely talked about it when giving interviews to newspapers and magazines. He even wrote an essay about it, but on the air, he wanted to be discreet about it. The way he put it was “I don't want to sell it.” He didn't want people to think of him as “the guy with polio” or come off as a guy who merited special attention or special consideration for it. So even though he was open about it, he never acknowledged his disability on his shows.


And not only would he not acknowledge it, but the production crews he worked with would help him hide it. If you ever watch Bill's shows, you'll notice that at the opening, he's either already seated, or he's so close to where he needs to be that he only has to take one or two steps to get there. Any time that he actually had to walk across the stage, they would either cut to a commercial, or cut to a shot of the contestants and just stay on that until Bill was done walking. On at least one of his shows, an intern was assigned to walk side by side with him and pretend to have a conversation with him so the audience wouldn't be distracted by the sight.

Bill was so committed to avoiding "selling" his condition that, for a brief period early in his TV career, he lied about it. In a few newspaper and magazine profiles, his persistent limp is attributed to a car accident at age 18. One article even says it's why he considered a career in medicine. But the accident never happened.

Bill married three times in his life, though the first two were brief.  Bill's first marriage was to a high school sweetheart, Ruth Harrington  They separated when Bill moved to New York but didn't officially divorce until July 8, 1948. Both of them re-married a year later. In later years, Bill was apparently embarassed by the failure of this first marriage and may have concocted a cover story about being forced to marry a cousin to explain it.


After moving to New York, Bill met singer Carol Ames when he was an announcer for a radio series on which she appeared.  They married on July 30, 1949.  Carol had also been a singer on the Arthur Godfrey program and in New York nightclubs, and she continued to perform in the Manhattan area during their marriage.  They lived in an apartment on New York's East side.  That marriage ended some time in 1955.

Bill met the former Ann Macomber in the summer of 1955, during which time he was commuting to California once a week to host Place the Face.  Ann was a model and TV actress based on the west coast, but gave up that career and moved with Bill to New York. Ann's sister married Jack Narz, another popular game show host of the fifties and Bill's announcer on Place The Face.  Ann and Bill were married on Christmas Eve, 1955 and moved into an apartment overlooking the East River.  In the spring of 1959, Bill and Ann moved to a larger apartment in a complex called 25 CPW, facing Central Park.  Their marriage lasted the rest of Bill's life.  Ann would occasionally appear with Bill on the sets of his shows.

In the 1950s, Bill gradually determined his niche and settled into it. Early in his career, Bill had done a wide swath of programs--variety shows, comedy, soap operas--and his strengths seemed to play toward comedy. Columnists keeping tabs on radio and TV news would occasionally call for networks to give Bill a variety show as a vehicle. Bill didn't really fancy himself "a performer" and never actively sought such work, although executives occasionally kept him in mind for such gigs. Early in 1956, word came that NBC was considering an NBC daytime variety show to be co-hosted by Bill, Gene Rayburn, Ernie Kovaks, and Jack Lescoulie. But one way or another, those kinds of plans always fell through, and Bill cheerfully stuck with game shows, for the most part.

As popular as he continued to be into the seventies and eighties, Bill's greatest success professionally probably came in the late fifties.  He was the host of Pulse, the four-hour NBC radio program which aired live from 6 to 10am.  After hosting that morning program, he headed up the street to NBC's TV studio where he hosted The Price Is Right from 11 to 11:30.  He also hosted the nighttime version of The Price is Right AND played I've Got A Secret once a week.  At times, I've Got a Secret and The Price is Right aired on the same nights, only 30 minutes apart on the NBC and CBS schedules; Bill would take a taxi to get from one show to the other for the live broadcasts. He even found time during the week to record a two-hour Saturday version of Pulse. That's a total of 25 1/2 hours of programming a week, virtually all of it live.

The rewards of such a busy schedule were enormous.  By 1958 he was making $300,000 a year, a fortune at the time, which made him one of the highest paid TV performers in the country.  He was also a major star, appearing on the covers of TV Guide and other entertainment magazines.

Bill Cullen WWSW 1941
Bill Cullen CBS radio 1946
Bill Cullen 1954
Bill Cullen Bill Todman
Ann Cullen kisses Bill Cullen
Bill Cullen WRCA 1958

Among Bill's hobbies were photography (he owned tons of equipment and took literally thousands of pictures of his wife Ann), interior decorating, model plane building, painting (water color and oils), magic, music (he tried to learn saxophone and guitar), raising fish and writing plays and poetry.  Of all his hobbies, though, his passion was flying.

Bill earned a pilot's license in his teens, but his interest in flying became more serious during World War II.  Rejected by the armed services due to his childhood bout with polio, Bill served in the Civil Air Defense as an instructor and patrol pilot in his native Pennsylvania.  He owned a Ryan Navion four-seater plane, the same type flown by fellow enthusiast Arthur Godfrey.  Later, he owned a different four-seater, a Beechcraft Bonanza.  In 1950, with several planes, he incorporated a flying business called Appointment Airlines. That endeavor lasted only two years and was a financial failure, costing Bill about $30,000.  Bill continued to be a devoted flier well into the 1970s.

Into the sixties, Bill's schedule settled into "only" hosting six episodes of The Price Is Right a week, as well as panel duties on I've Got A Secret.  He dabbled in other TV and radio pursuits, including sports coverage, perhaps in an effort to break out of being pegged as just a game show host.  However, by the seventies his efforts were almost totally in game shows.

The seventies saw a slow migration of game show production from New York City to the newer and larger facilities of California studios.  Bill was among the last of the major game show hosts to make the move to Los Angeles, in part because of his long-time association with producer Bob Stewart, who also resisted relocating to the west coast.  By the beginning of the next decade, both faced reality and joined their colleagues in California.

In Bill's later years he was as popular a choice as ever to host new games, despite a growing desire by network executives to locate newer, younger talent.  In a 1984 TV Guide article, Bill described how networks and packagers would start out looking for a fresh face, but eventually come around to choosing him again and again.  In the 1980s he worked for three of the major game show production companies (Goodson-Todman, Barry-Enright and Bob Stewart) even as fewer and fewer game shows were being produced.

After his final series, The Joker's Wild, left the air in the fall of 1986, Bill quietly retired from television.  Speaking to radio personality Alan Colmes in 1988, in what was probably his final interview, Bill had a pretty jaded view of modern game shows:

"I don't enjoy television as much as I used to.  It's not as much fun.  There's a lot of greed today, it seems.  A lot of business administration aspirants coming along.  They used to play it for fun, to get on the air and have their friends see them.  You'd give them a thousand dollars and you made their year.  Now, unless it's twenty or thirty thousand dollars, they look at you like you suckered them into a deal that really didn't turn out as well as they perhaps had hoped." 

His last televised appearance was as a celebrity guest on The $25,000 Pyramid (alongside fellow game show legend Betty White) the following June.  A lifetime of smoking began to take its toll.  In 1990 he learned he had lung cancer, and on July 7, he died of complications from that terrible disease.

Bill Cullen Pass the Buck 1978

His peers remembered him fondly.  Dick Clark said, "Bill was the ultimate host.  He had the great talent of making his job look easy."  Pat Sajak called him "a broadcaster's broadcaster", adding, "He was a gentle and gracious man, yet had a biting wit.  Because Bill was so good and made it look so easy, I don't think he ever received all the recognition due him."  Monty Hall said, "Of all the emcees, Bill had great class.  Great intelligence and great class."

Bill Cullen The Price is Right
Bill Cullen Blockbusters
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