Peter Marshall arrived for his Hollywood Squares audition in 1966 wearing shorts. “I had been playing golf, and I figured there was no way they were going to hire me for this thing,” he confesses to Closer. “And then I went back to New York because I was going to do Breakfast at Tiffany’s [on Broadway].”
Of course, fate had other plans. Peter remained the host of the beloved celebrity tic-tac-toe game show for a whopping 15 years, as well as the master of ceremonies for a nighttime syndicated version, which aired for a decade. “I thought it was going to be a 13-week gig,” recalls Peter, 95, whose calm, unflappable presence proved to be the perfect contrast to the show’s off beat and often hilarious celebrity “squares.” But Hollywood Squares wasn’t an immediate success. “In the beginning, we were up against The Dick Van Dyke Show reruns. We languished for maybe nine months,” Peter says. “And then all of a sudden we started growing. The next thing you know, we were a big hit.”
Was Hollywood Squares fun to host?
“It was so much fun to do. It was not like work at all. We’d do a show, and then we’d break for 15 minutes, and then another show, and then we’d have lunch or dinner. We’d do five shows in five hours. It was really easy for me. I didn’t rehearse. I’d just come in and go over the questions. That’s all I did.”
How did you get along with the show’s celebrity regulars?
“Great. I had a lot of dear friends on the show. Wally Cox and I went to P.S. 165 together in New York. Paul Lynde and I go back to when he was struggling in New York. George Gobel was one of my best friends. I knew Vincent Price since I was 18. I also made a lot of great friends on Squares — Karen Valentine, Ruta Lee —we became very familial. We would all take a vacation every year together. We went to Jamaica and Canada. Those were fun times. I made some lasting friendships.”
Were there any celebrities you didn’t enjoy working with on Squares?
“A couple were difficult. Eva Gabor couldn’t have been more delightful, but Zsa Zsa was a pain in the a—. She demanded a car. There are people I could tell you about, but I’d rather not, because 99 percent of them were wonderful.”
Is it true that the stars drank alcohol between shows?
“We would do three shows, then we would break for dinner. I’m not a drinker but, yes, Paul would have some wine. Then we would just scream and yell [while taping the] Thursday and Friday shows. Those would always be funnier shows because people would drink.”
Another rumor is that you only accepted the host job on Hollywood Squares so that Dan Rowan of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In wouldn’t get it. True?
“Yes. I’ve only disliked two people in my whole life, and Dan Rowan was one of them. They told me that if I didn’t do Squares, Dan Rowan was going to do it. And I said, ‘Screw Dan Rowan.'”
Why did you feel that way about him?
“Early on in my career, I teamed up with Tommy Noonan. We became a popular comedy act, and we wrote an act for Dan Rowan and Dick Martin. They became Rowan and Martin and, of course, got Laugh-In. But then Tommy had a brain tumor. Dick Martin was wonderful. He sent money and would go visit. Dan never went to see Tommy, who was responsible for his career, once in his last eight months. That made me so upset, and that’s the reason I disliked Dan Rowan.”
Were you upset when they brought back Hollywood Squares in the mid-1980s with a new host?
“Oh, of course not. I had moved on to theater jobs back on Broadway. And John Davidson is one of my closest friends. I also love Tom Bergeron. I think he’s terrific.”
People know you best from Hollywood Squares, but you also had a long career in theater.
“Yes. I starred with Chita Rivera in London in Bye Bye Birdie. I starred on Broadway with Julie Harris, but I couldn’t sell four tickets on my own until Squares. It’s amazing how that game show made me an entity. But I have always loved theater very much.”
Is there a “secret” to your longevity in Hollywood?
“I really don’t know what my secret is. I just do a lot of stuff. If you ask me what I do for a living, I’m a singer. And then I’m an actor. And then I’m a game show host. But singing has been the thing I loved most.”
Will you ever fully retire?
“Oh, this past year did it. I’m retired. I had COVID in January and pneumonia. I’m finally recovering, I think. But at my age, it’s not so easy.”
Who helped you through your illness?
My wife and my children — they have been wonderful. My wife is still taking care of me. I keep getting better because I have so much love in my life.”
How did you meet your wife Laurie?
“I met Laurie when I was doing La Cage aux Folles. She worked for TWA and was seated next to me in first class. She had seen me in La Cage and thought I was gay! That was the beginning. I was 60 years old, and she was 25. But we’ve been together 35 years.
That’s so great.
My kids adore her. My friends adore her. And I really adore her. It’s been wonderful.
We were sorry to hear that you lost your son David to COVID last year.
“It’s really very sad. He was just a wonderful boy who had eight children, six grandchildren and a wonderful wife. He was an artist. It just breaks my heart. To lose a child is just awful.”
Are you a grandparent?
“Yes. I’m a great-grandparent, too. I love it. I have terrific, interesting grandkids. They come to see me, which is great.”
If you had the opportunity to do things over, would you change anything?
“I don’t think so. Maybe my second marriage. My first marriage produced my four children and lasted 25 years. My second was for an hour and a half. [Chuckles] I would not do that one again. You know, as you reflect, there are things you would do differently, but I think it all has led to this moment.”