This Is Your Life
|This Is Your Life|
Title card from 1954
|Presented by||Ralph Edwards|
|Country of origin||United States|
|Running time||45–48 minutes|
|Original release||October 1, 1952– 1961|
|Related shows||British version
New Zealand version
This Is Your Life was an American Reality documentary series broadcast on NBC radio 1948 to 1952, and on NBC television 1952 to 1961. It was originally hosted by its producer Ralph Edwards. In the show, the host surprises a guest, and proceeds to take them through their life in front of an audience, including special guest appearances by colleagues, friends and family. Edwards revived the show in 1971-72, while Joseph Campanella hosted a version in 1983. Edwards returned for some specials in the late 1980s, before his death in 2005.
The idea for This Is Your Life arose while Edwards was working on Truth or Consequences. He had been asked by the U.S. Army to "do something" for paraplegic soldiers at Birmingham General Hospital, a Van Nuys, Los Angeles, California Army rehabilitation hospital (a site later converted into a high school). Edwards chose a "particularly despondent young soldier and hit on the idea of presenting his life on the air, in order to integrate the wreckage of the present with his happier past and the promise of a hopeful future." Edwards received such positive public feedback from the "capsule narrative" of the soldier he gave on Truth or Consequences that he developed This Is Your Life as a new radio show. In the show, Edwards would surprise each guest by narrating a biography of the subject. The show "alternated in presenting the life stories of entertainment personalities and 'ordinary' people who had contributed in some way to their communities." The host, consulting his "red book", would narrate while presenting the subject with family members, friends, and others who had had an impact on his or her life.
By the 1950s, the show was aired live before a theater audience. The guests were surprised by Ralph Edwards and confronted by the microphone and cameras. They made their way to the studio during the first commercial break. Most of the honorees quickly got over their initial shock and enjoyed meeting bygone friends again, as with Don DeFore on May 6, 1953. Movie producer Mack Sennett's response was typical: he hated being caught off-guard, but as the tribute progressed he relaxed, and by the end of the show he was quite pleased with the experience.
Planning for the broadcast meant that some would know in advance about the surprise. Carl Reiner later admitted that he knew beforehand about his appearance. In some cases the episode was not a surprise: Eddie Cantor had a heart condition, so the show's producers made sure that he was not surprised.
Some celebrities were unpleasantly surprised. Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy was angered by being "tricked" into what would be the team's only American television appearance, on December 1, 1954. Laurel later said, "Oliver Hardy and I were always planning to do something on TV. But we never dreamed that we would make our television debut on an unrehearsed network program...I was damned if I was going to put on a free show for them." Lowell Thomas "displayed obvious anger and embarrassment"; when host Ralph Edwards tried to assure him that he would enjoy what was to come, Thomas replied, "I doubt that very much." In 1993, Angie Dickinson refused to appear on a retrospective show.
One of the show's subjects was Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. During the episode Edwards introduced Tanimoto to Robert A. Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Hanna Bloch Kohner, a Holocaust survivor, was a subject on May 27, 1953.
In February 1953, Lillian Roth, a "topflight torch singer of the Prohibition era" was the subject of the show, "cheerfully admit[ting] that she had been a hopeless drunk for 16 years before being rescued by Alcoholics Anonymous." Edwards described Roth's condition as "impending blindness, an inflamed sinus and a form of alcoholic insanity" and brought on a psychiatrist who had treated her, a brother-in-law "who had paid her bills" and several "glamorous foul-weather friends" such as Lita Grey Chaplin and Ruby Keeler. Roth's story became the basis of her 1954 autobiography and 1955 film adaption, I'll Cry Tomorrow, with Edwards appearing as himself.
Kate Newcomb, a doctor who practiced in a "70-mile circle" around Woodruff, Wisconsin and was later honored as the namesake of that town's Dr. Kate Newcomb Museum, was the subject of a 1954 episode, bringing attention to her "million pennies" drive to raise funds for a small community hospital; viewers of the episode donated over $112,000 in pennies.
According to The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows, 1946–Present, one celebrity that was definitely off-limits was Edwards himself, who supposedly threatened to fire every member of his staff if they ever tried to turn the tables on him and publicly present Edwards' own life.
Frances Farmer appeared in 1958 for the January 29 broadcast, almost eight years after her release from psychiatric hospitals in her home state of Washington and almost five years after her mother's guardianship, also in Washington State, ended. Farmer's commented on her hospitalization by saying "If someone is treated like a patient, they're likely to act like one".
Johnny Cash was caught off guard while filming a 1971 episode of The Johnny Cash Show. He had finished welcoming the audience to the stage when his wife, June Carter Cash, walked onstage and introduced Ralph Edwards; the taping thereafter turned into an episode of This is Your Life. He tried to keep his composure, but was still seen to be nervous, and also emotional as he viewed recorded tributes from the likes of Billy Graham.
This Is Your Life was nominated three times for as "Best Audience Participation, Quiz or Panel Program" at the Emmy Awards, losing in 1953 at the 5th Emmy Awards to What's My Line? and sharing the category's award with What's My Line? at the Emmys in 1954 and 1955. It also fared well in the ratings during the 1950s, finishing at #11 in 1953-1954, #12 in 1954-1955, #26 in 1955-1956, #19 in 1957-1958 and #29 in 1958-1959.
By October 1960, Time magazine was calling This Is Your Life "the most sickeningly sentimental show on the air"; it cited a May 1960 episode on "Queens housewife and mother" Elizabeth Hahn as evidence that the show had "run through every faded actress still able to cry on cue" and had instead "turned to ordinary people as subjects for its weekly, treacly 'true-to-life' biographies." The episode on Hahn was also cited as an example of the limited research that the show was doing on its guests. The show had presented Hahn as "devoted to her husband and so dedicated to her children that she had worked as a chambermaid, waitress and cook to further their education and keep them off the streets", ignoring details such as that Hahn, on the advice of her rabbi, had brought her daughter into a magistrate's court as a delinquent, and that before the episode was broadcast, Hahn's husband had sued her for divorce. Virginia Graham, in her autobiography, noted that the show had been characterized as a maudlin invasion of privacy.
Reruns and revivals
In the late 1980s, Edwards made many episodes that featured celebrities available for re-broadcasting: American Movie Classics aired them for several years, accompanying them with "screenings of movies from studio-era Hollywood."
Edwards revived the series twice in syndication, the first with Edwards again as host and in 1983 with Joseph Campanella. Both failed to capture the magic of the original series, mostly due to the series being filmed or taped and, in the case of the 1971-72 version, some stations that aired it gave away the surprise elements in ads and promos for the show. During the late-1980s, Ralph Edwards hosted a few single prime time network airings of This Is Your Life, most memorably an episode featuring Betty White and Dick Van Dyke.
In November 2005, ABC announced that it was developing a new version of the show, to be hosted by Regis Philbin. Coincidentally, the show's creator, Ralph Edwards, died not long after the announcement was made. In August 2006, Philbin decided not to renew his contract with the show (he was committed to hosting America's Got Talent on NBC). ABC announced it was considering moving forward with another host in 2006 but this never came to fruition.
Other versions of the television show have also been made, in Britain from 1955, Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden. The British edition followed the same "trick the guest" format as the US version; notable guests included cast members from Doctor Who and The Avengers. A Russian version was also broadcast; guests on that version (English-translated title Let Them Speak) included spy-turned-celebrity Anna Chapman.
- The show was memorably parodied in 1954 by Your Show of Shows, as "This Is Your Story". Carl Reiner played the host, who surprises an uncooperative audience member played by Sid Caesar.
- There was also a recurring segment on the children's program Sesame Street, "Here is Your Life," which followed the show's format but featured inanimate objects -- a loaf of bread, an oak tree, a tooth, a house, and a carton of eggs -- as its guests.
- The WWE spoofed "This Is Your Life" three times with Mick Foley as the host. The purpose of these segments were to bring out individuals of the guest's past that would embarrass them. The most notable of these segments occurred on September 27th, 1999 with The Rock, which many consider to be the turning point in The Monday Night Wars.
- As a part of a 1987 Howdy Doody 40th anniversary retrospective special, Monty Hall and Buffalo Bob Smith imagined, as a way to celebrate Howdy Doody's birthday, a spoof of "This Is Your Life" called "Your Happiest Days".
- In 1955 Warner Brothers animator Friz Freleng did a sendup called "This Is a Life?", hosted by Elmer Fudd and featured Bugs Bunny as guest of honor. The cartoon also featured Daffy Duck, Granny and Yosemite Sam.
- On his own show, British comedian Benny Hill once did a parody of the program called "Is This Your Life?". Co-star Bob Todd played the unknowing guest of honor, with guest appearances by various people from the man's past, all of them played by Hill himself in different costumes and characters including the popular Fred Scuttle.
- "Radio: Sermon on the Air". Time. February 16, 1953. Retrieved 2011-03-06.
- Mary Desjardins. "This is Your Life". Encyclopedia of Television. Museum of Broadcast Communications. Retrieved 2011-03-06.
- "This is Your Life - Don DeFore". Internet Movie Database.
- "Angie Dickinson". NNDB. Soylent Communications. Retrieved 2011-03-06.
- "428: Oh You Shouldn't Have". This American Life. March 4, 2011. Retrieved 2011-03-06.
Photo: Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto appearing on a 1955 episode of the TV show "This Is Your Life." Host Ralph Edwards is at right.
- "Movies > Classic TV > This is your Life: Hanna Bloch Kohner". Moving Image Archive. Internet Archive. Retrieved 2011-03-06.
- "Milestones". Time. June 11, 1956. Retrieved 2011-03-06.
- Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows, 1946–Present, revised and enlarged, p. 758. New York: Ballantine Books, 1981.
- "Television: This Is Your Wife?". Time. October 17, 1960. Retrieved 2011-03-06.
- "ABC Contemplates Life Without Regis", Broadcasting & Cable, 30 August 2006.
- "TV Q&A with Rob Owen", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 25 August 2006.
- "Mark Burnett Does 'This Is Your Life'". TVWeek.com. October 2008. Retrieved 2011-03-06.
- "Här är ditt liv - en svensk tv-klassiker" (in Swedish). SVT.
- "Anna Chapman appears on Russian television's 'This is Your Life'". Daily Telegraph.