Even after all this time, Match Game remains a shining example of the best format for a game show. However, the true quality of the show was dependent on the celebrity panelists, and that is where the ‘70s version of Match Game truly shined. In addition to the hosting excellence of Gene Rayburn, there were several tremendous panelists who made the ‘70s era of the series far and away the best game show run in the history of time. Some of them appeared more frequently than others, but they were all wonderful, be it for their game playing acumen, their humor, or, in many instances, both. Here are our picks for the top 10 panelists of ‘70s Match Game.
10. Bill Daily
Daily had key supporting roles in two iconic sitcoms of a bygone era. He played one of Major Nelson’s astronaut buddies, Roger Healey, on I Dream of Jeannie, and, more importantly, he played Howard Borden, the Hartley’s wacky neighbor on The Bob Newhart Show. In fact, Daily helped make Howard one of the best wacky neighbors in television history. He appeared sporadically on Match Game, at first, taking up the spot on the top left corner where men always rotated in and out. Later, he would try and help replace a certain man in the bottom center seat, but we will get to him later.
Daily liked to talk a lot, and joke a lot, which was not always the case for men in the top left seat. Fortunately, he was also funny—unlike some of the men who were in that seat and did like to talk. (We’re looking at you, Gary Burghoff.) While he will always be remembered more for his sitcom work, Daily was a truly great addition to the Match Game panel when he showed up.
9. Joyce Bulifant
You may recall Bulifant from her role as Murray’s wife Marie on The Mary Tyler Moore show, and she also had a role in Airplane! Bulifant had a bubbly personality, and was, perhaps, not the best at this particular game. However, they kept inviting her back, because she was always delightful, usually in the bottom right seat, which was a rotating cadre of wonderful women, many of whom appear further up on this list.
But in truth, Bulifant deserves a spot on this list solely for one joke she made. During a later season of Match Game, Rayburn busted out his “Old Man Periwinkle” voice for a round. Bulifant quipped, “Gene, you don’t have to do that voice anymore. You can use your own.” It was wonderful, and proof that Bulifant was sharper than some gave her credit for.
8. Nipsey Russell
Russell is one of the iconic figures of Match Game. When Crow T. Robot did his one-man show about the life of Gene Rayburn up on the Satellite of Love, Russell was one of the panelists. He was one of those guys who popped up on game show all the time in the bygone era when you could make a living as a “game show panelist.” He also used to show up to guest host The Tonight Show, and he played Tin Man in The Wiz. Russell was also a standup, so he made a living from being funny, which really helped when it came to bringing entertainment to Match Game.
It also helped that he was quite adept at the game, which should not be surprising given that he also appeared on other game shows that weren’t so interested in personality. His intelligence was also on display when it came to his signature schtick. Namely, he would almost always answer with a rhyme. He would drop little couplets that ended with his answer, and since he had to do it on the spot, after hearing the prompt and thinking of the answer, it was rather impressive.
7. Marcia Wallace
The late, great Marcia Wallace was the voice of Edna Krabappel on The Simpsons, and that alone makes her indisputably awesome. However, she was even better in the flesh as Carol, Bob Hartley’s receptionist on the aforementioned The Bob Newhart Show. Like Russell, she appeared on a ton of game shows back in the day, although she was not as adept at playing Match Game.
The most notable thing about Wallace on Match Game was that she had a tendency to get censored for being inappropriate. You must remember, this was the ‘70s. Many of the fill-in-the-blank prompts were clearly written in double entendre fashion, and some of them were obviously designed to get certain body parts, or physical acts, to be the answer. However, while “boobs” and “buns” and “making love” were often tossed out, there were still certain things that were verboten, which Wallace seemed to have some trouble with.
Nevertheless, Wallace, usually found in that vaunted bottom right spot, was consistently very funny on the show. She really helped give Match Game the “cocktail party” vibe a lot of people associate with it. Much like the characters she played, she was quick with a quip, and smooth with the sarcasm. If she had appeared more often, she’d probably be higher on the list. As it is, she is the highest ranking person on the list who you probably wouldn’t categorize as a “regular” panelist.
6. Brett Somers
To some, having Somers this low will be considered heresy. She is the queen of Match Game. If you ask people what Somers is known for, 99% of the time, the answer you will get is “Match Game.” It made her a game show icon. Her then husband, Jack Klugman of The Odd Couple fame, suggested her for the series after he appeared on the first week of the program in 1973. She was brought in, and she basically never left.
People love Brett Somers. They love her big glasses, and her wigs, and her raspy voice. And she was wonderful! Nobody is here to knock Somers. However, and we are braced to accept ardor over this, but maybe Somers is a bit overrated?
She was very good at the game, obviously. She had excellent rapport with many of the panelists, including her sparring partner Charles Nelson Reilly, who we will get to later, and also Rayburn. But, while she was pretty funny, she was not as funny as many other panelists. She had a way of meandering her way through a joke, and also had a tendency to domineer the show at inopportune times. Somers was always railing about something, be it Richard Nixon, or hitting a parked car, or whatever happened to be on her mind. Still, this is not to say that Somers should have been removed from her throne in the top center position. There were dozens of people on Match Game, and she’s sixth overall! (Don’t hurt us!)
5. Fannie Flagg
Flagg, like a lot of Match Game panelists, mostly made a career of Broadway work with the occasional TV guest spot, or small movie role. Later on, Flagg would become much more recognized for overcoming severe dyslexia to become a successful author. She wrote the book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café and the screenplay based on that book, for which she earned an Oscar nomination. Flagg also had very big breasts, which was a source of much mirth on Match Game, whether she was on the panel or not. An Oscar nominated writer. A game show panelist with big breasts. Either way, it’s a fine legacy to leave.
Flagg was not just the source of jokes, or the occasional correct answer on the show. Another staple of the bottom right, Flagg had a delightful way of looking at the camera when she gave an answer. Now, it wasn’t usually the right answer, but it was often a funny answer. Flagg was one of the panelists who skewed a little more toward getting laughs than getting things right, but the important thing is that she succeeded. She could also play dumb with the best of them, particularly when it came to prompts of a lascivious nature.
4. Betty White
Look, we don’t need to go into this, right? You know Betty White. You love Betty White. Either you remember White as being great on Match Game, or you are saying to yourself, “Oh, Betty White was on Match Game? I bet she was great.” And you would be betting right. White was already a veteran of television by the ‘70s, and was married to game show host Allen Ludden from 1963 until his death in 1981. White was pretty perfect, because she was great at playing the game, and was also, of course, hilarious. Every answer, it seems, was prefaced by a funny joke related to what she had written on her card. It really speaks to the quality of the following top three that White is only fourth on this list. Truly, this is a murderer’s row.
3. Patti Deutsch
This is going to be a divisive pick. Deutsch is a polarizing figure in the world of Match Game. One Tumblr dedicated to the show, and yes there are several Tumblrs dedicated to Match Game, referred to her as a “ditz.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, she was an oddball. The bottom right seat that we keep harping on about was occasionally referred to as the “weirdos” seat by Rayburn. Deutsch was certainly the weirdest of the weirdos. She was also awesome.
She didn’t really do much outside of appearing on game shows in the ‘70s. She had a small role in Mr. Mom, and has done a little voiceover work, but this was all post-Match Game. Before Match Game she’d basically just done some sketch work on a couple of TV shows, like Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. She was apparently in an improv group with Fred Willard, so that’s cool.
What sets Deutsch apart from other celebrity panelists is that she seemed, to some degree, to be doing a bit. She had her own sort of “character” for the show. This assertion is based upon her appearances on Tattletales with her husband Douglas Ross, wherein she appears a bit less spacey, and where her voice also seems to be ratcheted down a bit. (Because Deutsch does have a, shall we say, idiosyncratic voice.) It always seemed like she was getting over a head cold. That added to her comedic delivery though, and she also had excellent timing.
The reason that Deutsch is so polarizing is that her reputation is of somebody who gave ridiculous, impossible to match answers. And, yes, she gave some oddball answers, but they were almost always very funny. Take, for example, the prompt “The White House did not have eggs for their annual Egg Roll, so they rolled blank instead.” Patti’s answer? “Mussels Marinara.” She seemed to have a thing for marinara, as she included it in a fair amount of her answers.
However, Deutsch’s reputation as a person who gave nonsense answers is overblown. Perhaps she curbed that a bit in later years, but usually she gave a plausible answer—but she would dress it up. For example, when everybody was answering “knee,” she answered “patella.” She had a wonderful way with words, and made good use of it. Furthermore, she was impeccable when it came to her introductions. At the beginning of every episode, they’d introduce the panelists for the day. Some would just give a wave or whatever. A lot of times they would write something on a card. Deutsch always did a bit when she would turn, stone faced, toward the camera, oftentimes going too far and ending up looking beyond the camera.
Patti Deutsch was great. Also, she coined the euphemism “upper frontals” for breasts, which is more than most can say.
2. Charles Nelson Reilly
You are probably, at the very least, familiar with the broad caricature of Charles Nelson Reilly. Perhaps you’ve seen Alec Baldwin’s impression of him from Saturday Night Live. All of these parodies are over the top, and marginalize Reilly into a series of ticks. Which is fine, because that’s how parody works, but there’s much more to Reilly than you might realize, and his persona was not quite as over the top as you may have come to believe—as opposed to every impression of Paul Lynde which, frankly, undersells him.
Those two are forever tied together as game show staples whose homosexuality was an open secret. Reilly seemed to make no bones about it, usually dropping into a “butch” voice whenever he discussed sports, before juxtaposing it with his normal demeanor. He was a permanent fixture in the top right seat, right next to Somers. Some of the goodwill that Somers gets is probably related to the fact that Reilly was always ready with a bon mot when Somers went off on some tirade, or when she had a bad answer.
Reilly was the funniest of all the Match Game panelists. He would sit there smoking his pipe and mugging for the camera. His mock indignation knew no bounds. One of the most iconic instances of this is when he refused to sit on the top row with Brett and David Doyle any further, taking a seat next to Betty White on the bottom row.
Oh, and he won a Tony Award. Not such a punchline now, huh?
1. Richard Dawson
Richard Dawson ruled over Family Feud as its host, but he was the king of Match Game. He’s so iconic as a game show host a lot of people probably don’t remember him as an actor, outside of playing a game show host in The Running Man. However, he first started to make his name on Hogan’s Heroes (arguably the best sitcom about a Nazi prisoner of war camp). After that, he ended up on Match Game basically from the beginning, and it’s his work on Match Game that got him the job hosting Family Feud—and a legacy of kissing ladies was born.
Why was Dawson the king of Match Game? For starters, he was the best game player. Nobody else was close. He almost always had a good answer, and more often than not, he had the same answer as the contestant, if their answer made any sense. Most importantly, he was exceedingly good when it came to the head-to-head match. When a contestant needed to pick one panelist to match with, to try and earn 10 times their winnings, they almost always picked Richard. This was so much the case that they eventually instituted a wheel to choose at random, so that it wasn’t always Dawson playing. It became jarring to see anybody other than Dawson chosen, except the one time a contestant named Betty White chose to play with the other Betty White.
But Dawson wasn’t just a great game player. He was also incredibly funny. Dawson had a dry sense of humor, and was always good for a nonchalant quip that would be, nevertheless, humorous. He occupied the bottom center until he left the show late in its run, and replacing him was never really possible. He was just too good—the total package. His brains were on display when he was playing the game, and when he was cracking jokes.
Having anybody else atop this list would be like having Richard Nixon atop a list of ______. Just, wrong.
Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.