Ralph Edwards, 92, the radio and television host who presided over "This Is Your Life," a popular and parodied reunion show, and elaborate dares on "Truth or Consequences," died Nov. 16 at his home in West Hollywood, Calif. He had congestive heart failure.
Mr. Edwards based "Truth or Consequences" on parlor games he knew as a child. The radio show was an immediate sensation (though never with critics) when it debuted on NBC in 1940. The concept was simple: Audience members were chosen to answer strange questions, and the penalty for missing the answer was to perform a variety of absurd stunts. Many chose to throw the right answer -- and slightly higher payment -- for a chance in the spotlight.
Such "consequences" included trying to sell a freezer to an Eskimo or singing crazy ditties and barking while crouched in a doghouse. One of the more elaborate escapades was played on the borough of Manhattan. Posters were plastered all over the island announcing the Town Hall concert engagement of the "great European violinist Yiffniff."
Despite the suspicious offer of free tickets, the story was picked up by some city newspapers and presented as legitimate. A musically challenged New Jersey housewife became part of the trick when she lost a question on the show. She was spirited to Town Hall, given a violin and tossed on stage in her polka-dotted print dress. She squeaked out a few notes before the audience caught on.
The program made Mr. Edwards a household name. As a sign of the show's popularity, residents of the little town of Hot Springs, N.M., voted overwhelmingly in 1950 to change the town's name to Truth or Consequences. (Later attempts to reverse this failed.)
A breezy, chummy personality, Mr. Edwards appeared in movies with such titles as "The Bamboo Blonde" (1946) and "Beat the Band" (1947). Mostly he thrived on radio and in the new medium of television. "Truth or Consequences" had a brief TV run with Mr. Edwards as host. (Bob Barker later succeeded him.) He then led "This Is Your Life" on NBC from 1952 to 1961.
Based on a segment first featured on "Truth or Consequences," "This Is Your Life" tried to surprise a famous studio guest with a series of testimonials from elementary school teachers, relatives and other voices from the past.
Although shock was essential to much of the show, Mr. Edwards made exceptions for singers Eddie Cantor, who had a heart condition, and Lillian Roth, whose struggle with alcoholism was considered too personal to foist a national audience on her unexpectedly.
The programs veered toward the mawkish, which Sid Caesar mocked on his "Your Show of Shows." In a skit, Howard Morris played "Uncle Goopy," an emotional wreck who constantly leaps into the arms of his long-lost nephew (Caesar).
Mr. Edwards recalled one of his own guests, journalist and author Lowell Thomas, being difficult, bemoaning a "sinister plot" to get him to shed a tear. When Mr. Edwards told Thomas, "You're going to enjoy this," the venerable writer replied, "I doubt that very much."
"His third-grade teacher said he knew every rock and rill in the Rockies," Mr. Edwards once said. "And he said, 'Yeah, and I knew every saloon, too.' The rating kept going up during the show as people called their friends to tune in."
Mr. Edwards reportedly issued a decree that anyone who surprised him on the show "This Is Your Life" would be fired.
Ralph Livingstone Edwards was born June 13, 1913, on his family's farm near Merino, Colo. At 13, he moved with his parents to Oakland, Calif., where he wrote skits for a local radio show. Before completing his undergraduate work in drama at the University of California at Berkeley, he notched up experience as an actor, producer, radio effects man and janitor at another Oakland station.
After graduation in 1935, he hitchhiked to New York and "ate ten-cent meals and slept on park benches," he later said. In 1938, he became a full-time announcer at CBS and worked with such radio stars as Fred Allen and Major Bowes.
Two years later, he sold the concept of "Truth or Consequences." Although some radio critics sniffed at the pranks, Mr. Edwards liked to highlight the more than half a billion dollars of War Bonds he said he sold through the program.
Mr. Edwards also could be defensive about "This Is Your Life," which reviewers did not embrace. He said that although celebrities became a focus of programming, he also featured "heroic unknowns" such as war veterans.
"Its first impact is an emotional one," he told the New York Herald Tribune. "When you can endow an educational foundation of a million dollars, when you can build hospitals through a program, when you can give Medico $150,000 to continue [medical missionary] Tom Dooley's great work, when you can raise half-a-million dollars for Hungarian relief in half-an-hour, then it is a very worthwhile show."
Mr. Edwards had a long career as a television producer with musical game shows ("Name That Tune"), dramas ("Family Medical Center") and courtroom shows ("The People's Court"). In 2001, he received the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Charles F. Jenkins Lifetime Achievement Award, which also cited his philanthropic work.
His wife, Barbara Sheldon Edwards, whom he married in 1939, died in 1993.
Survivors include three children; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.