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Here’s What Happened to Gene Rayburn Before, During and After Hosting Classic ‘Match Game’

On and off between 1962 and 1982, Gene Rayburn served as the host of various versions of the Classic TV game show Match Game. In between, he got his start in radio, worked with Steve Allen on The Tonight Show, appeared on Broadway, acted in TV dramas and much more. Yet through it all, he credited his success to “personality” above everything else.

“It’s kind of difficult to define a personality,” Gene commented to The Times of San Mateo, California, in 1956. “Part of it certainly is physical — a personality should be pleasing to look at and have a pleasing voice, for example. But there’s something more to it. It’s really an undefinable quality. You can’t acquire it, it’s a congenital endowment. I think it has a lot to do with empathy — a feeling that runs back and forth between the personality and the audience.”

He was born Eugene Peter Jeljenic in Christopher, Illinois, on December 22, 1917, the youngest of two children. Gene lost his father while he was an infant, resulting in the family moving to Chicago where his mother met and married Milan Rubessa. According to Adam Nedeff, game show historian and author of the biography The Matchless Gene Rayburn, it wasn’t a happy childhood for Gene: “He always referred to his mother as Crazy Mary, and his recollection was his stepfather was sort of a path of least resistance kind of guy. He did whatever Gene’s mom told him to do, because that was the easiest way to live. On top of that, Gene’s brother was killed in a traffic accident when Gene was still a child, and his mother actually blamed him for the death, which is something he had to live with.

Courtesy Adam Nedeff

“Talking to Gene’s daughter,” he continues, “he did therapy during his adult life, but the problem was that Gene was a big admirer of Sigmund Freud and his therapy was inspired by Freud’s methods. Well, Freud’s methods have pretty much been laughed off the face of the Earth by the psychiatric community, so Gene was not getting the level of health care that he should have. The therapist kind of rubber-stamped Gene and said, ‘You’re OK now,’ but his daughter looked at him and said, ‘No, there’s still stuff going on here. Stuff that’s not being dealt with.’ The feeling was that Gene was carrying around this burden mentally and never really got it properly dealt with. His daughter’s theory is that that’s why he was so obsessed with being an actor, because when you’re an actor, you’re playing a character and changing your identity. You’re not you for a few hours every day. She thinks that that’s really what attracted Gene to the idea of acting.”

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