Tom Kennedy hosted a ton of TV game shows that you no doubt know and love. Some of his best known contributions were Split Second, Name That Tune and You Don’t Say! We never like to be the bearer of bad news, but on October 7, 2020 Kennedy passed away at the age of 93. At least he lived a full life. In fact, you could say that his career was downright remarkable.
Let’s pay this legendary game show host our respects by taking a closer look at his life and accomplishments. Stay tuned to find out what Kennedy’s first big break was.
Tom Kennedy’s Early Years
The man we know as Tom Kennedy was born James Edward Narz in Louisville, Kentucky. The bluegrass state native came into this world on February 26, 1927. His fathers name was John Lawerence Narz Sr and his little brother, Jack Narz, grew up to be a radio emcee and television hosts as well. In fact, it was because of this fact that James changed his name. His agent thought it was in his best interest to make the change to avoid the potential conflict of having two different television personalities with the same surname promoting products from competing brands – seeing that Kennedy was working for Plymouth at the time and his brother was an announcer for Ford.
Following a relatively uneventful childhood, he studied broadcasting at the University of Kentucky and the University of Missouri. He worked as a radio host in Louisville before deciding that he wanted to work in television, but before he could do that he would have to start making a name for himself. In fact, not much is known about Tom Kennedy’s life until he landed his first TV gig. Following in his brothers footsteps, he moved to Hollywood in 1947 in hopes of pursuing a career in the entertainment industry.
The Big Game
He got his start as a game show host with The Big Game in 1958, a short-lived prime time game show that aired on NBC . The game was loosely based upon the board game Battleship but with an African themed makeover of sorts.
Instead of sinking naval vessels, contestants would hunt for jungle wildlife on a 5 by 5 grid. Competing ‘hunters’ would take down hippos, tigers and alligators that would be concealed from the view of the other player.
Tom Kennedy would ask each contestant a series of trivia questions and each correct answer would earn them between 3 and 6 ‘shots’ that they could then attempt at taking on the their opponents grid. For each animal that they successfully slaughtered, contestants would earn cash awards from 100 to 1500 dollars. The winner of the game would take home 2 grand and would stick around to compete on the next episode against a different opponent.
Kennedy’s next big break was taking over the quiz show Dr. I.Q for the 1958-59 season. Singer Lew Valentine had originally host the show when it was first broadcast on the Radio in 1939. When the show made the jump to television in 1953, Jay Owen took the helm as host and then Jimmy McClain took the wheel in 1954.
The game show consisted of the Host asking concert and theater attendees a series of general knowledge trivia questions for the chance of winning prize varying amounts that were paid out all in silver dollars. Every episode, one lucky contestant would get the chance to spin what was dubbed the Wisdom Wheel in hopes of landing on prize amounts up to $100.
Another prominent feature of the show was the ‘Lady in the Balcony’ segment, where a female audience member was chosen to answer a series of 5 questions. If she could successfully answer all five without getting all 5 of them wrong, she would come back next week for another chance to answer 5 questions. If by the end of four weeks she managed not to answer 5 questions in total incorrectly, then she would win a grand prize.
You Don’t Say!
In what is considered Tom Kennedy’s first high-profile show, You Don’t Say was a popular daytime game show that was first aired on NBC from 1963 to 1969. The show’s premise was very similar to another popular game show, Password, where the host would first whisper a famous person’s name and a description of them to the audience before a contestant would attempt to guess the name while being fed clues and words that rhymed with parts of the name by their celebrity teammate. This would go on until they were able to successfully solve the riddle. Each correct answer would score the contestant 1 point, and three points would win the game.
Cash prizes, all-expense-paid trips, and the chance to win a brand new car kept the game show exciting.
The show was revived by ABC in 1975 with Tom Kennedy once again taking on the role as host. Jim Peck however would host the subsequent 1978-79 syndicated series.
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It’s Your Bet
Kennedy hosted NBCs It’s Your Bet from 1971 to 1972. The show consisted of 2 celebrity couples playing on behalf of members of the live studio audience. A spouse would place a wager on whether or not their partner was able to answer a question about their personal lives. A motorized wall in the middle of the set would be raised between the couple so the betting marriage mate could confidentially phone in their question to the host. Wagered points would be awarded to a team if they successfully guessed whether or not their mate could answer the intimate questions accurately, and the first couple to reach 300 points would win the game.
From 1972 to 1975, Kennedy was the perpetually jocund host of Split Second on ABC. This fast-paced quiz show awarded contestants for both their ability to answer trivia questions correctly but also for successfully answering multiple questions in the same category.
For example, if the category was ‘losers of presidential elections’, and the contestant was able to name 3 different prospective incumbents then they would win exponentially more cash than if they just got one right.
Name That Tune
Like Dr. IQ, Name That Tune was around for quite some time before Tom Kennedy manned the ship. It was the creation of Harry and Roberta Salter and pitted 2 contestants against each other to see who had the superior knowledge of pop songs. A clip of music was played and whoever was capable of naming the tune first would win cash or prizes. Sometimes players would be able to bid on how few notes they needed to identify a song, with the fewer required notes equating to higher prize amounts.
Tom Kennedy hosted the popular game show when it was running in syndication from 1974 to 1981 – making it the longest running show that he was apart of.
Beginning in 1976, contestants would get the chance to win a $100,000 cash prize. Initially this came in the form of identifying a single mystery tune, but in 1977 the format was changed so that the jackpot prize was only winnable by contestants who successfully out-guessed an opponent in a special tournament.
In 1978, the Mystery Tune was discarded altogether in favor of 4 $100,000 tournaments.
Tom Kennedy’s Other Notable Shows
Tom Kennedy made a brief attempt at being a talk show host in 1970, although The Real Tom Kennedy Show was canceled after it’s first season.
In 1976, Kennedy hosted Break The Bank, a show similar to Hollywood Squares where 9 celebrities sat on the top and side of a 4 x 5 grid while contestants would choose a square on the grid for the chance to answer a trivia question and win a prize amount.
Also in 1976, Kennedy hosted 50 Grand Slam, a daytime quiz show where 8 contestants per episode would compete for the top cash prize of $50,000.
For the 1977-78 season, Kennedy was the host of To Say The Least, a battle of the sexes that would have two teams attempting to guess a mystery term in as few words as possible, and for the 1979-80 season he hosted Whew!, another competitive yet short lived quiz show.
When The Price Is Right attempted a syndicated nighttime version in 1984 Tom Kennedy stepped in for 2 seasons. And after Allen Ludden passed away in 1980, Kennedy hosted Password Plus for it’s remaining 2 years on the air.
Some might not recall the fact that Kennedy also dabbled in acting. He guest-starred on comedies like That Girl, Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-in and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and he showed us his serious side in dramas like Cannon and Hardcastle and McCormick.
Retirement and Death
Kennedy retired from a life on television in 1989 following several years of appearing in pilots that never went anywhere. He made a brief return to television in 2003 when he appeared on an episode of Hollywood Squares. In total, Kennedy spent over 30 years on television and hosted 14 different shows.
James Narz died in 2008.
Then Kennedy’s wife passed away in 2011. The couple had 4 children together, Linda Ann, James Narz Jr. Courtney Ellen and Julia Kathleen Narz. Unfortunately, the latter child, Julia, passed away in 2015.
After suffering from an undisclosed illness for several months, Tom Kennedy passed away on October 7th of 2020. He will be remembered for years to come for his his genial demeanor and lovable smile. There are very few game show hosts that have careers as vibrant as his was.
Well, that wraps up this video. Hopefully, we’ve been able to respectfully capture Tom Kennedy’s life in a nutshell, although, nothing beats watching an episode of one of his classic game shows. He was certainly one of the most likable TV personalities of his era.
Which Tom Kennedy hosted game show do you enjoy the most, Name That Tune or You Don’t Say? Drop us a line and let us know what you think in the comments section.
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