Game shows are a TV staple, a mood-lightening and fun form of programming where viewers root for the players, because, for the most part, they’re regular people — just like the rest of us. Individuals from all walks of life can appear on a game show, even those on the road to celebrity and success.
It kind of makes sense that there’s a connection between a game show appearance early in one’s life and fame later on. Historically, game shows have taped in entertainment industry hotbeds like Los Angeles, New York, or Orlando, and that’s where these stars-to-be relocated to as part of their plan to make it big. While waiting for their big break, many of them killed some time, tried to earn a little money, and even got a hint of exposure with a brief stint on a game show. Here are some celebrities you may have seen on a game show long ago before you recognized them, and, frankly, before anyone did.
Aaron Paul got the price wrong on The Price is Right
Well before winning three Emmys for playing young miscreant and meth distributor Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad (or voicing Todd on BoJack Horseman) a teenaged and twenty-something Aaron Paul earned his living by acting in commercials for products like Corn Pops, Juicy Fruit, and Vanilla Coke. Working and living in the Los Angeles area, he was able to attend a taping of The Price is Right in 2000, where, under his real name of Aaron Sturtevant, he was implored to “come on down” to Contestants Row and compete to win fabulous prizes.
Paul was extremely thrilled about the opportunity, shrieking, “You’re the man, Bob! You’re my idol!” to host Bob Barker. After a successful (and extremely loud) bid on the price of an “elegant, flat-top desk,” he won a game, passed through the “Big Wheel” spin, and made it all the way to the Showcase Showdown. He would have won that whole gallery of prizes, too, had he not overbid by a scant $132. But he came out a winner in the end. Paul mentioned on The Tonight Show (via The Hollywood Reporter) that a friend who competed on an episode of The Price is Right that taped the same day did win a vacation on his Showcase Showdown and brought him along.
Boiling Points got Lady Gaga to break her poker face
It’s been a quick rise to household name status for Lady Gaga. She had her first hit single, “Just Dance” in 2009, and within a decade, she’d topped the Billboard Hot 100 five times, played the Super Bowl halftime show, and won an Oscar for Best Original Song for “Shallow” from A Star is Born.
Before she was Gaga, she was an aspiring singer named Stefani Germanotta, and one day when she dropped by a New York café, it was filmed for a 2005 episode of an MTV series called Boiling Points. A hybrid of hidden camera show, prank show, and game show, Boiling Points contestants didn’t know they were being filmed, and they’d win $100 if they endured an uncomfortable or stressful situation for a set period of time without getting angry or walking away. Germanotta suffered a series of staged annoyances, indignities, and rude behavior from waitstaff for about 12 and a half minutes — short of the pre-set 14 minute boiling period. In other words, Lady Gaga didn’t win $100.
A very young Cynthia Nixon lied on To Tell the Truth
On the classic game show, To Tell the Truth, three people would come on and all make claim over the same name and interesting life story or accomplishment related by host Garry Moore. After several rounds of questioning, the panel of celebrity judges would guess which participant was telling the truth.
The topic of one early 1970s episode was Mr. J.B., a horse led into the studio by Moore, and ridden by three girls dressed in brightly-colored Western duds. All three kids claimed to be Amanda Cobb, a rider and trainer of horses like Mr. J.B., purportedly a “new breed” that was “small as a pony with the look of a standard horse and the markings of an Appaloosa.” The child in an oversized yellow cowboy hat and super-chic ’70s fringe vest turned out to be a liar: She wasn’t Amanda Cobb at all, but a second-grader named Cynthia Nixon.
That same Cynthia Nixon would one day co-star on Sex and the City, win an Emmy for playing stressed-out lawyer Miranda, and run for the office of governor of New York. According to an interview on Today, Nixon was selected to be a To Tell the Truth decoy because her mother worked on the long-running game show.
Linda Cardellini won a fireplace on The Price is Right
Well before Linda Cardellini earned an Emmy Award nomination for her role as a suburban woman with some extremely dark secrets on Dead to Me, or before her work in the very popular Daddy’s Home movies, or even before she got her big break as sullen teenager Lindsay Weir on the 1999–2000 cult classic Freaks and Geeks, the actor paid her dues in Hollywood with small roles in a slew of 1990s TV shows like Kenan and Kel, Step by Step, Clueless, and 3rd Rock from the Sun. Cardellini’s very first TV appearance came in the mid-1990s: when she was a 19-year-old contestant on The Price is Right.
“I was one of the first people called up to Contestants Row, which I have to say was maybe one of the most exciting things that has ever actually happened to me,” she told NPR. Cardellini failed to win a bedroom set, but she did win a gas fireplace that, as she said on The Daily Show in 2013, kept in the box for a decade before finally installing. She also revealed that she kissed host Bob Barker and spun 90 cents on the “Big Wheel,” but didn’t get to go to the Showcase Showdown because another contestant rolled a perfect $1.
Jon Hamm didn't land The Big Date
Following up his star-making, Emmy-winning, monumental role as handsome but very problematic 1960s advertising executive Don Draper on Mad Men, Jon Hamm joined the cast of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in the recurring role of the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, the cult leader and predator who had kept Ellie Kemper’s title character in an underground apocalypse bunker for more than a decade. In one episode, the unsettling creep recalls a moment decades earlier in which he “did the ladies a favor by going on a TV dating show,” where he lost to a goateed guy named Mark.
A clip of a ’90s game show featuring Hamm’s character plays, and according to Bustle, it’s minimally altered but completely real footage of Hamm from a forgotten, short-lived USA network dating game called The Big Date. The real Hamm didn’t win a date with a woman named Mary, despite promising “some fabulous food, a little fabulous conversation, with a fabulous foot massage for an evening of total fabulosity.”
What is a game show that featured John McCain?
Politics aside, it’s undeniable that John McCain lived a remarkable life. According to History, he served in the US Navy, then became a senator representing Arizona, which he parlayed into securing the Republican nomination for president in the 2008 election. He also did a fair bit of TV, guest-hosting Saturday Night Live in 2002 and appearing as a contestant on the original version of Jeopardy! way back in 1965, according to Outsider. Less than two years before he’d be deployed to fight in the Vietnam War (and subsequently spend more than five years at a prisoner of war camp), McCain showed off his intellectual skills on the tough and brainy quiz show hosted by Art Fleming.
McCain actually won his first game of Jeopardy!, entitling him to come back and once more phrase his responses in the form of questions. That time, he lost, failing to correctly answer the “Final Jeopardy” question, responding “What is Wuthering Heights?” when the correct reply was the name of that Emily Bronte novel’s main character, Heathcliff.
Vanna White didn't win a fortune on The Price is Right
Vanna White is such a game show mainstay that Guinness World Records honored her in 2013. She’s the official holder of the record for “Most Frequent Clapper,” having applauded for and encouraged contestants over more than 30 years as the glamorous co-host and letter-turner on the perennially popular syndicated game show Wheel of Fortune.
White has been a part of millions of Americans’ daily TV viewing habits for decades, moving into game shows after a stab at acting faltered, following a handful of small roles in forgettable early ’80s fare. Probably the most memorable thing White did was her appearance as a contestant on a non-Wheel of Fortune game show in June 1980: The Price is Right. She doesn’t ever win the bidding process and get off of Contestants Row, but White, a bubbly young woman in her early twenties, still gets plenty of screen time and attention from the reportedly lascivious host, Bob Barker. He explains that her tight T-shirt bearing the phrase “Get Serious” caught the eye of the “fellows on the crew,” and then teases her for not understanding the game because she was staring at herself on a monitor.
Don't judge Simon Cowell for his stint on Sale of the Century
Since the early 2000s, there have been few people who have appeared on television, both in the US and the UK, as much as Simon Cowell. Perpetually dressed in a tight black T-shirt and delivering brutally mean (but bluntly accurate) critiques of aspiring singers and entertainers as a judge on American Idol, America’s Got Talent, Pop Idol, and The X-Factor, the English producer and music industry bigwig became rich and famous helping to make dreams come true on a series of what are really just glorified game shows. It’s fitting then that one of Cowell’s first-ever television appearances, according to Metro, was on a game show.
The program in question: Sale of the Century, during its 1989 to 1990 run on UK broadcaster Sky One. Cowell wasn’t even supposed to be there that day, having not gone through the usual channels of contestant selection and screening. “My sister-in-law,” he said on The Tonight Show in 2011 (via Metro), “was like a host or something on this particular show and then one day a contestant didn’t show up and she said, ‘Would you like to be on?'” Cowell’s game time stretched over two episodes, but in the end, he walked away with a meager prize: a set of kitchen scales worth about $20.
A.J. McLean had the guts to be on GUTS
As a member of the Backstreet Boys, A.J. McLean was an unrivaled pop star in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was still just a kid when he was already on a quick trajectory to becoming a professional entertainer. For four years he attended a performing arts academy in Brandon, Florida, not far from the Orlando production facilities of Nickelodeon. He soon appeared on the kid-friendly network in two capacities: in a bit role on the sitcom Welcome Freshmen, and as a contestant on an episode of the tween sports-themed game show Nickelodeon GUTS.
According to Buzzfeed, host Mike O’Malley, who gave most of the competitor’s nicknames, called the 14-year-old aspiring cartoonist and dinner theater performer “A.J. “Mean” McLean, and he proved himself GUTS-worthy, winning the “Aerial Slam Dunk” by scoring five baskets. In the show’s famous final endurance test, the faux-avalanche-prone “Aggro Crag,” McLean was second to the top, finishing in second place for the episode overall.
Joey Fatone wasn't in sync on Nick Arcade
Beyond A.J. McLean’s Backstreet Boys, there were many boy bands in the 1990s, and many of them were created in Florida, including NSYNC, which counted among its ranks the amiable Joey Fatone. Much like McLean (of another five-man singing group), Fatone also competed on an Orlando-taped, kid-oriented Nickelodeon game show years before he’d become a pop sensation.
Fatone’s very first screen credit (on a resume that would someday include work on game shows like Family Feud, 25 Words or Less, Common Knowledge, and The Singing Bee), was as a contestant on Nick Arcade, a show where teens and tweens squared off by playing video games and virtually appearing inside video games. In his one and only appearance on Nick Arcade, “Joseph” performed well, and didn’t get enough points in the show’s early rounds, according to Bustle, barely missing out on the chance to go for the big prizes in the final round, a.k.a. “The Video Zone.”
Hunter Hayes had the keys to victory on Figure It Out
A staple of Nickelodeon’s daytime lineup from 1997 to 1999, Figure It Out was a modern-day, kid-centric version of the 1950s chestnut What’s My Line? On the old show, a panel of celebrities would pepper a reticent guest with probing questions to determine their profession. On Figure It Out, kids with special talents and abilities were the contestants, and they’d try to stump the inquisitive panel (made up of Nickelodeon personalities).
On an episode that aired in 1998, according to Taste of Country, a six-year-old boy appeared on Figure It Out, and so successfully prevented the celebrities from guessing his special talent that he won a backyard trampoline. His unique ability: He could absolutely wail on the accordion, and during the episode, he played a rollicking zydeco tune on the instrument. That young performer stayed with music — he grew up to be country superstar and multiple Grammy nominee Hunter Hayes.
David Graf went from the Pyramid to the Police Academy and back to the Pyramid
The 1970s and 1980s game show The $10,000 Pyramid (which would later change its name with bigger cash prizes available) taped in New York, and according to The Washington Post, its contestant rolls were often stocked with unemployed or underemployed stage actors. Many would-be stars played on the show as contestants, paired up in teams, ironically, with partners who already were celebrities. David Graf, who would go on to become a big part of the Police Academy franchise as firearm-obsessed officer Eugene Tacklberry, appeared on The $10,000 Pyramid in 1979. With the help of his celebrity teammate, Oscar-winning former child star Patty Duke, according to Mental Floss, Graf cruised through the show’s final round and won the full $10,000 prize amount possible.
After the blockbuster success of the first Police Academy movie from 1984, Graf returned to Pyramid, this time as the celebrity part of a contestant duo.
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