The Bootleg Files: To Tell the Truth

BOOTLEG FILES 713: “To Tell the Truth” (long-running television game show).

Plenty of old episodes are on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A few of the older episodes are on DVD from a highly dubious label.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Never properly repackaged for home entertainment channels.


Liars are the most fascinating people. After all, they can give you a spiel that could be utterly convincing and compelling, but it is only later when you realize their smoke-and-mirror act played you for a fool. And it takes a certain brand of talent to sell a falsehood in a manner that it is happily embraced as a fact and its seller is welcomed as an all-around good sort.

Separating fact from dishonesty was the core of the long-running television game show “To Tell the Truth,” which offered a simple yet hypnotic premise. A trio of people would be presented, with one member of the group being an individual of some great accomplishment and the other two pretending to be that very special person. A panel of four celebrities would ask a series of questions to gauge which one was the person deserving the spotlight and which ones were the fakes. The celebrities would vote on which one of the three was telling the truth, and after the vote the real person being highlighted would claim their accolades by standing up and receiving applause from the audience. Cash was doled out based on who could gain the celebrities’ votes.

In concept, this was a deceptively benign game, and one might think it could quickly get boring. But “To Tell the Truth” was among the longest-running and most beloved game shows in U.S. television history, offering a never-ending guessing game where the celebrity panelists and the viewers played detective to sort out the liars from the heroes.

“To Tell the Truth” began its television odyssey in 1956 as a pilot episode called “Nothing But the Truth” from Mark Goodson-Bill Todman Productions. CBS liked the premise of the show, but had little enthusiasm for its host, a former radio announcer named Mike Wallace, and replaced him with another radio talent named Bud Collyer. This obviously proved to be a blessing in disguise for Wallace, who found his way into confrontational television journalism, and it was a genuine blessing for Collyer, whose genial personality (capped with a trademark bowtie) gave the show a pleasant environment.

“To Tell the Truth” was initially broadcast as a once-a-week prime-time show, but by 1962 a five-days-a-week daytime version was introduced. By the 1960s, “To Tell the Truth” settled into a presentation with a fixed number of regular panelists: comic actors Tom Poston and Orson Bean and theatrical performers Peggy Cass and Kitty Carlisle. The ladies on the panel offered a wonderful contrast in styles: Peggy Cass’ gruff voice and appearance symbolized a working-class chic while Kitty Carlisle’s regal demeanor and styling gave the impression of old-school royalty. Other celebrities who appeared during the original run were a pre-“Tonight” Johnny Carson and Hollywood icons Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche.

Every now and then, “To Tell the Truth” challenged the celebrities and audiences to guess the identities of some rather amazing personalities. One memorable show required the use of a curtain to separate the celebrities from their prey: they were asked to pick Bette Davis from two comic impersonators, Kaye Ballard and Patricia Knight – but the imposters went so over-the-top with their Davis impersonations that the genuine article sounded like the fraud.

But, for the most part, the celebrities got to see the subjects of their inquisitions face-to-face. Indeed, one of the most incredible segments occurred in the Bette Davis show: Barney Hill, who claimed to be abducted by aliens, was the subject of the section before the Davis offering. Hill was black, but the two imposters were black and white – “To Tell the Truth” was among the first game shows to break the color barrier and have a multiracial slate of contestants presented for consideration. Indeed, one of the finest episodes of this series involved African-American Olympic champion Wilma Rudolph and two imposters. Kitty Carlisle celebrated the contestants by stating it was honor to know all of them – and that was no small feat on early 1960s television!

It was all very pleasant and diverting until CBS cancelled the prime time show in May 1967 and the daytime show in September 1968. The daytime episodes are mostly lost – CBS intentionally wiped the video masters, believing there was no further commercial value – but many of the prime-time shows are still extant as black-and-white kinescopes. In 1969, the show was revived for a syndicated run. Garry Moore took over from Bud Collyer as host and the celebrity panel mostly consisting of Kitty Carlisle, Bill Cullen and Peggy Cass, with the fourth spot rotating among the likes of Orson Bean, Nipsey Russell, Soupy Sales, Gene Rayburn and Joe Garagiola.

As a personal aside, I came to “To Tell the Truth” as a kid during the 1970s, when I saw the syndicated run of the show in the evenings on WPIX-TV in New York City. I recalled the show as a fun guessing game, often with outrageous surprises. A classic moment from this portion of the series had the celebrities tasting what seemed to be gourmet beef stroganoff – the chef was a budget-conscious chef who made the dish during the midst of a price hike in beef by using dog food as the main ingredient. (The look on Kitty Carlisle’s face when she spit out the forkful of stroganoff she consumed was priceless.) Another major surprise was having Caroll Spinney, the man inside Big Bird’s costume – watching the celebrities sniffing about for clues on the real Big Bird performer was invigorating. (This is especially poignant considering Spinney’s recent passing.)

Was “To Tell the Truth” great television? Maybe not. It was a fairly low-fi, elementary show with B-list stars and a user-friendly guessing game that didn’t tax the cerebral cells. Indeed, the show was adapted into productions that played on television networks around the world. But it was a fun and pleasant distraction – and, after all, isn’t that what game shows were all about? The syndicated version of “To Tell the Truth” ran until 1978 – Garry Moore was diagnosed with throat cancer during its latter years and was replaced as host by Bill Cullen and later by Joe Garagiola.

After the syndicated version of the show went off the air, it was revived several times: in a 1980-1981 syndicated incarnation, in a 1990-1991 NMC version that had multiple hosts including Alex Trebek, in a 2002-2004 syndicated version and in an ABC version that popped up as a summer show beginning in 2016 with Anthony Anderson as host. However, none of these later versions captured the happy simplicity of the original run or the first syndicated offering – these reboots seemed over-caffeinated and tried too hard to be cute and engaging, a far cry from the relaxed mood of the Collyer and Moore versions.

There has never been an official home entertainment release of any version of the “To Tell the Truth” episodes. A label that has been called out for bootlegging has been selling two DVDs featuring several episodes from the Bud Collyer years – amazingly, they are on Amazon despite their dubious nature. The older shows have been rerun on the Game Show Network and Buzzr cable channels, and some of those episodes are on YouTube. This is probably the best way to enjoy the jollity that “To Tell the Truth” offered for so many years.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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