To talk with Peter Marshall, the man who is costarring in the National Theatre's "La Cage aux Folles" but who will be forever known as the host of the defunct game show "Hollywood Squares," is to tour a landscape dotted with mountains of compliments, rivers of "very close friends," skylines of "brilliant talents" and oceans of affection.
Take George Bush, with whom Marshall recently played golf.
"He's just adorable," says Marshall. "I had a wonderful time. He invited me back to the house. I met Mrs. Bush. They're delightful. She showed me a rug she's been working on for years, in needlepoint. Beautiful."
Or Burt Reynolds.
"Without mentioning names, a lot of people started on our show and then become big stars and would never do it. If we'd have a ratings time, we could call Burt Reynolds and he would fly in from Florida to do it. He never forgot. He's the best. He's the best. He's just the dearest, sweetest person."
Or Julie Harris.
"I love her. She's a delicious lady."
And on and on it goes with Marshall who, for 15 years, played Mr. Congeniality to a tick-tack-toe board of celebrities, laughing at their frequently rehearsed quips on what became a daytime TV institution. When a newspaper photographer introduces himself, it turns out he's related to Marshall, and it's all too perfect -- Peter Marshall is the kind of guy who has "known forever," "sees whenever he can" or is related to just about anyone you've ever heard of. And almost all of them seem worthy of superlatives.
Even today, plagued with a headache, the endless amiability flows from Marshall, drowning waiters, doormen, photographers and stray diners at the Bristol Grill. They all get a deep "Hi!" and a flash from the overbite so familiar to anyone who ever watched Marshall convulse in giggles at Paul Lynde and Rose Marie. Even when he offers a less-than-generous assessment of someone, it's qualified into nonexistence or mellowed in the pained tones of a sadly disappointed uncle.
And why not? Peter Marshall has lived a delightful life.
"I did a dumb thing," he says. "I should have had a diary, because everybody did my show. Go back to George Sanders, Helen Hayes -- all of them, all the old actors, everybody. And they all wanted to do it. The funny part of it was, they were all fans. I got a call from the Mike Douglas people one day and they said, 'Would you call Mike Douglas at this particular time?' and I said, 'Why?' and they said 'Helen Hayes. We're doing two shows today and she refuses to do the first show because she'll miss 'Hollywood Squares.' She said, "My day begins with "Hollywood Squares." '
"So I called, I asked for Miss Hayes, and I said, 'Miss Hayes? Hi, Peter Marshall here. Would you like to do my show?' And she said she would love to do the show and she came out the next week and did the show and it was delightful.
"George C. Scott. I'm doing a 'Dinah Shore Show' and he says, 'Hey, listen, can I do your show?' I said, 'Are you crazy? Of course!' He became a regular."
It was, he says, a lot of fun. All those friends joking around, taping five shows in one day, with a big lunch between Games Three and Four.
"We'd have 80, 90 people," he says. "Everyone would drink, wine flowed. The last two shows were hysterical -- that was in my drinking days, I don't drink anymore. We would laugh. I didn't know any of the jokes before. I laughed! I screamed! I wasn't hosting the show -- I was the audience."
But if he loved the show he calls "Squares," Marshall can still get the tiniest bit testy when reminded that most people think of him even now, five years after the show was canceled because the ratings were finally gone, as "that tall, smiling guy from 'Hollywood Squares.' " His bio in the "La Cage" program begins, "Peter Marshall -- the actor -- may very well be the best-kept secret in Hollywood" and when asked how he occupied himself between those days of laughter and wine, he is quick to say, "I did 20 weeks a year at Vegas, Reno and Tahoe. Working one day a week isn't enough for me."
The stereotype, he says, has "been a problem in people coming to the theater, but at least they know who the hell I am. It's hard for reviewers too to take that image away. They come in saying, 'Well, how dare that Game Show Host do musical comedy or be on the legitimate stage in any area!' I'll never forget when I signed for 'Squares,' they said, 'How dare NBC sign a musical comedy performer to do a game show!' because I had been starring on Broadway with Julie Harris in 'Skyscraper.' "
The game show label hurts, but Marshall also feels his career outside of "Squares" has never been sufficiently recognized because the guy who keeps things moving, who sets up the jokes, is never appreciated.
"If I'm not good, that show doesn't work," he says firmly of his "La Cage" role as Georges, master of ceremonies and longtime lover of a female impersonator. "I'm the . . . hub, everything revolves around Georges. The energy of the show, the whole pace, all the straight lines. My job is to make that show work. I can always remember being part of a comedy team, they say, 'The comic was wonderful, but the straight man's just okay. Costello was terrific, Abbott was not that great. Jerry Lewis was funny, Dean Martin was not too great.' They don't understand that the job of straight man is to make the comic funnier, make the play work."
Straight man is a role he trained for for years, first in a comedy team, then on "Squares."
"When a celebrity is there to be amusing," says Merrill Heatter, producer of both "Squares" and Marshall's current vehicle, ABC's "All-Star Blitz," "he wants to be in capable hands and get the reaction he hopes to get, not only from the audience, but from the person who is there to manipulate him -- I say that, of course, in the best sense."
In other words, you don't want someone who will steal the scene.
"That's why they signed me," Marshall says. "They were looking for a straight man -- that's exactly what I am. I got a call. Sometimes you know it's just right. I said to my wife, I said, 'Nadine' -- we're divorced now, but I said at the time -- 'I just got a million-dollar call. I just got a call that's going to change my life.' They said, 'We're looking for a guy who's done comedy, who has never done a game show, and -- they said this seriously -- a complete nonentity.' "
He laughs, teeth flashing.
"I said, 'You got it!' "
Now, after years of doing his nightclub act, of starring in regional musical productions, of checking into ABC's "Hotel" and sailing on the "Love Boat," Marshall is in the ninth month playing Georges on tour. He'll be in Washington with the show until January and talks about the role and the show with predictable ebullience.
"I'm having a great time. I don't play him very effete. I don't think you have to. I know a lot of relationships -- two men -- where the one man is very butch, he's not effete at all. There are two couples I know that were really my role models.
"It's really a very old-fashioned musical. It's a happening. I guarantee you, you feel terrific leaving that show. How many plays can you go see today that make you feel good? There are no more Esther Williams or Doris Day pictures to make you feel good."
Less than 60 years ago (he won't be more specific) Marshall was born Pierre LaCock, but quickly changed that, shedding the name at 15 when he first performed as a band singer. "I wanted to use my mother's maiden name, but they said it wasn't commercial. It was Frampton."
He pauses, a straight man at last able both to set up a joke and complete it.
"I would have been Peter Frampton," he says. A laugh, and there's the jovial overbite again.
That imperfect smile, that breadth of enamel, may in fact have been the key to Marshall's success. The platonic ideal of a game show host, Marshall believes, would be "a guy who looks midwestern, who is very easy with people, who likes people and who can move a show along." Not threatening, not intrusive, just a nice guy.
Sound like the former Pierre LaCock? Well, so be it.
"I said 'Don't edit me, for God's sake. Let me make mistakes,' " Marshall says, remembering what he'd say after committing a flub on camera. "You tell me now, Lech . . . Wal . . . How do you say that? I said 'Lech Waw . . . Walless . . . Walsia . . . ' They said, 'Stop the tape.' I said, 'Why?' They said, 'Because you don't know the name.' I said, 'Nobody else does either! That's terrific. It humanizes me.'
"I have a lot of teeth, too, you have to remember. They kid me, you know, 'The guy with the teeth.' That's terrific, I don't mind. I have that midwestern look, at least I did 20 years ago. I have a lot of teeth. I was the typical kind of guy you look for.
"The one thing I don't want to be is slick."
Marshall continues to refine his hosting skills. Every Monday morning, he flies out to L.A., shares some coffee with a son in Kansas City during the stopover, shoots five episodes of "Blitz" (a sort of watered-down "Hollywood Squares" which is not shown in Washington), runs around the city and takes the red-eye back to Washington Monday night, in time for Tuesday's performances.
"I get home, I get to see my house, I get to see my mother, my dog, my girlfriend."
The weekly commute "keeps me on television," he says. "That's the most important thing. For me to sell tickets, I have to stay on TV. If you stay off TV for a year, they forget you. Say to a 12-year-old, 13-year-old kid, 'What do you think about Bing Crosby?' and they'll say, 'Who?' Now, come on, that's amazing. People take themselves seriously in this business and think they're big stars. Well, they are, but Andy Warhol said it, we're all stars for 15 minutes and that's about it. I'm not saying I'm a star, but I am an entity now, not a nonentity."
And entities have certain powers.
"You know the glasses I wore in the show?" he says of the aviator frames he sported on "Squares." "Everyone wears them now, but I started the whole thing. Everyone used to wear horn-rim glasses, but those little wire things, I'm the one who did that."
Now, having finished his chicken salad and second cup of coffee, he's off to be grayed. The spray they've been using in "Cage" has made his hair fall out, so he's decided to go with dye, although he knows the sudden transformation will be traumatic to his faithful "Blitz" viewers.
"I'll get letters," he says with a resigned smile. "I'll explain it once, but I won't do it every show."
Even Peter Marshall can only be so amiable.