The $25,000 Pyramid
Produced for weekly syndication 1974-1979
While Dick Clark was in control of ABC's $10,000/$20,000 Pyramid, Bill held the reins for the popular nighttime version.
Two celebrity/contestant teams compete. Bill announces six categories with vague or misleading titles (like "Fun in the Sun"). Then, a team selects one of the categories. Bill announces the subject ("Describe these things associated with Puerto Rico"), and the celebrity has 30 seconds to describe up to 7 words to the civilian for a point apiece. Any clue could be given, short of actually saying part of the word. A teammate can pass on any word, but could not come back to it. If the contestant thinks of it before the descriptions are done or time runs out, s/he stills receives a point.
After time runs out or all 7 words have been guessed, the opposing team picks one of the remaining categories and does likewise. Rounds 2 and 3 are identical, except that the civilian describes in round 2, and the team can choose who describes in round 3. Under these rules, a perfect score would be 21; achieving that score earned a $2,100 cash bonus.
The teams also had a chance to win big in the front game by locating The Big 7, a symbol hiding behind one of the categories played each week. The Big 7 offered a bonus to any contestant who could score 7 out of 7 in the designated category, and as the series evolved, so did the payoff. Originally it was $500, then $1,000; then it became a randomly selected amount between $1,000 and $5,000, and during the final season, cash was abandoned and the Big 7 prize became a brand new car.
If the game ends in a tie, additional rounds are played, with the subjects being a straightforward "words that begin with the letter ____." Top scorer in the tiebreaker wins. In early episodes, they played as many tiebreakers as it took. Later in the run, only one tiebreaker was played; top scorer wins the game, but if both contestants score 7 out of 7, the team that reaches that score faster wins.
The top scoring team goes to the Winner's Circle, one of the most famous end games ever devised. One teammate sits facing the pyramid, the other sits opposite. (Contestants can choose either position but almost always chose the latter, so we'll presume that for this description.) The celebrity is shown six subjects one at a time and this time with obvious titles. In one minute, the celebrity has to give a list of items that fit each subject while the partner guesses. This time, rules for clues are much stricter. Hand gestures were illegal, and clues could only be given in the form of a list; prepositional phrases, complete sentences, or descriptions would cause the subject to be thrown out. Either team member could pass and, unlike the front game, they can go back if time is left. The three subjects at the bottom are worth $100 apiece. The two subjects in the middle are worth $200, and the one at the top pays $300. If all six are guessed before time runs out, the payoff is $10,000.
Game two is played identically to game one, except that who won makes a big difference. If the contestant who lost game one wins, they play the Winner's Circle for $10,000. If the same player wins both games, Winner's Circle #2 is now worth $25,000. (However, the contestant can only win a TOTAL of $25,000, so if the contestant wins the first Winner's Circle, they play the second Winner's Circle for $15,000.)
Bill's name pops up over and over again in the story of Pyramid's development. Bob Stewart first tested the concept of a game revolving around lists of items with an unsold pilot in 1967 called Celebrity Doubletalk, featuring Bill as one of the celebrity teammates. Two years later, Bob Stewart introduced an NBC game show, You're Putting Me On, in which one round consisted of teams trying to convey correct answers against the clock. A few years later, Bob Stewart produced an unsold pilot titled Cash On The Line, featuring host Dick Clark and celebrity player Bill Cullen. The game was played on a pyramid-shaped game board but was actually a fairly different game. A year later, Bob Stewart brought Bill into the CBS offices to demonstrate a new game show format he was testing. A CBS executive unexpectedly suggested that the game use a pyramid-shaped game board, and The $10,000 Pyramid set sail in March 1973.
While Bill was always Bob Stewart's first choice to host any game show, Bill was already hosting Three on a Match for him in the spring of 1973 and it's unlikely that NBC would have allowed Bill to host a daily game show on a competing network, so Dick Clark ended up with the job. Dick Clark's contract with ABC (where he was hosting American Bandstand) prohibited him from hosting a prime time series on a competing network. When CBS owned-and-operated stations agreed to air the nighttime Pyramid, Dick cautiously declined to host that version, so Bill ended up with the job.
Since Bill's version of Pyramid was a weekly syndicated show, only thirty episodes were produced each year. Those episodes were taped in a grand total of five workdays each season, typically spread out over a two month period depending on the availability of celebrity panelists. (The first season shot in the fall of 1974, and subsequent seasons shot in the spring.) During the time Bill hosted this show in syndication, he hosted a variety of different games from Bob Stewart Productions on the network daytime schedule. He also continued as a panelist (and occasional substitute host) on the syndicated To Tell The Truth.
The staging of Pyramid was quite different whenever Bill participated, in order to avoid showing his limp on camera. As a player, Bill and his partner stayed at their podium after a win, rather than taking the customary dash to the Winner's Circle. Also, as a player, Bill and his celebrity opponent would already be seated during the opening introductions, rather than making the traditional walk-ons.
In 2001, TV Guide ranked Bill's nighttime Pyramid the #6 greatest game show of all time.
According to a dependable source, a bona fide effort was made to pull Bill's tapes out of the vaults some years ago for reruns on Game Show Network...but the tapes couldn't be found! Now, this doesn't necessarily mean the tapes have been destroyed, and we can take comfort in the fact that there are precedents in the world of game shows for hundreds of lost tapes being unearthed eventually; the original versions of The Joker's Wild and The Hollywood Squares, believed for years to have been erased, were both uncovered virtually by accident. There's hope that Bill's episodes might turn up in reruns some day, but for now, it's the second-worst case scenario: nobody knows where the episodes are.
Until they're located, we can take some comfort in this: About 25 episodes are floating around among video collectors. A TV station in Long Island reran the show during the 1980s, and a particularly loyal fan recorded a number of episodes. The picture quality on them varies wildly (they were clearly recorded from an antenna in a home that didn't have cable TV, and many of them are quite snowy as a result), but we'll gladly take it until the masters are found--knock on wood.