When you’re young, being out of work can be exciting, especially if you live in New York City. There’s so much to do, so many ways to keep busy—and maybe you can even earn a few bucks.Back in the mid-’70s, I was in that situation in New York, scraping by with some freelance editing. Another unemployed friend, an actor, landed an appearance on the quiz show The $10,000 Pyramid and recommended me to their casting people. He hadn’t won any money, just a consolation prize. (What, exactly, constitutes a year’s supply of Stella D’oro cookies, especially for the broke?) I figured, why not.
They taped a week’s worth in one day, so after watching no one win the big money during the first four shows, I was sent up as a contestant for the Friday game. There were two celebrity players, Lainie Kazan—a sweet, ditzy actress—and Soupy Sales—a smart, funny guy. Fortunately, I got Soupy.
Soupy and I whizzed through the initial round, though I remember getting semistuck on the word “corral.” After throwing out clues like “horses,” “enclosure,” “outdoors,” I finally blurted out, “Gunfight at the O.K. …” We were on a roll.
Then came the round where you actually played for the money. We agreed that Soupy would give the clues, and I would do my best to offer the answer. The two of us sat with our knees touching, Soupy facing the big board, me with my back to it. There were six word-association clues to be solved. Soupy could only give me verbal clues. His hands were held down by straps, meaning there would be no charades to help me figure things out.
We got the first five associations in about 30 seconds. I don’t remember any of them, but I do remember that I was at ease and totally focused on Soupy and his rubbery, expressive face. He calmly gave me clues and smiled every time I got an answer right.
Then we got to the final word association. We had another 30 seconds. I watched Soupy read the phrase and roll his eyes. “Eggs … bacon … chicken …,” he said. I quickly answered “Things you eat? Things you eat for breakfast?”
Soupy shook his head, then repeated, “Eggs … bacon … chicken …” He may have added something like “sausage,” and I’m sure I made several other wild guesses—I don’t remember what. I do remember, though, that Soupy kept his eyes fixed on mine, and he kept repeating those words, over and over. Finally, I managed to get my brain to restart, to think of other possibilities: “Eggs … bacon … chicken …”
“Things that are fried?” I asked.
Suddenly, we were both on our feet, hugging and jumping up and down. The audience was screaming. Dick Clark was shaking my hand. I had defeated The $10,000 Pyramid.
That 15-minute segment of my long-ago life came to mind a week ago when the funny, smart Soupy Sales died. I needed that money very badly at the time, and he helped me survive the year. I will never forget him for it. To me, he was a saint … or, at the least, a very clever performer.