Recently someone asked me about the back-story of Phyllis Diller’s appearance on “This is Your Life!” This was in the early 70s and it was almost a disaster. I was sworn to secrecy about the whole ordeal, but hey, it’s been 45 years, and I think I’m safe in telling about it now. I mean, I’m the only one left who knows what really happened.
Okay, everyone, raise your hand if you remember “This is Your Life!” Hmmm… that wasn’t a resounding response, so here’s a quick refresher:
The show started on radio back in the 50s. You might even call it the very first reality show. It worked like this: a person would be chosen in advance and then during some public event would be surprised by an announcer who would suddenly appear and crow: “Trudy Snoffitz! This is Your Life!” Once Trudy recovered from the shock, she would be escorted to a limousine and whisked to the studio where everything was in readiness.
In the television version the guest of honor sat on stage with the moderator, Ralph Edwards, and the mystery guests would speak from behind a curtain recalling some incident in their lives.
One day Phyllis’s publicist, Frank, called me and said “I’m going to tell you a secret and you cannot tell anyone. Not a single soul.”
“Not even Phyllis?” I asked
“Especially not Phyllis!” Frank went on to say that “This is Your Life!” was going to do an episode on Phyllis Diller. It had to be very hush-hush. He said that he had arranged for Phyllis to present an award to someone and as she was doing that, the announcer would step up on stage and announce, “Phyllis Diller! This is Your Life!”
“You know,” Frank went on, “This is all very involved and they’ve spent a lot of time researching and finding people to surprise Phyllis. I just want you to make sure she doesn’t make any other plans for that day.
It was just two days before the event when we hit the first glitch. Phyllis was updating her schedule and pointed to the presentation.
“I’m not going to have time for this,” she told me. “Call Frank and tell him to cancel it. He’s got time time to find someone else.”
My heart sank. “It won’t take all that long,” I wheedled.
“No,” she told me. “We’re leaving on Sunday for a two week tour and I have a lot to do before then. Cancel it.”
I had to try to persuade her to not cancel the presentation, but Phyllis did not take kindly to being contradicted; I would be skating on thin ice. When I didn’t reply, she looked at me quizzically. I squirmed for a minute, but finally realized it was not worth my job to argue further.
“Phyllis, there’s something you need to know.” I was way out of my comfort zone here, but I didn’t know what else to do. I took a deep breath and went on: “This isn’t just a plaque presentation. This is a set-up for ‘This is Your Life!’ They’ve been preparing this for months.” I thought she’d be thrilled, but she was lukewarm to the idea. However, it was obvious that this was a major production and she could not bow out.
So on the appointed day at the appointed time, Phyllis was at a little meeting in Hollywood presenting an award to someone she didn’t know for something she knew nothing about. And that was the second glitch.
As she preparing to hand the man his plaque, someone bounded up on stage and interrupted her. Phyllis did not take kindly to being interrupted. In fact, she was quite peeved and it showed. She turned to him and snapped “Excuse me, we’re in the middle of something here …” The poor man was stunned. He was no doubt used to people being so astonished that they simply stood there. Phyllis snarled. However, once he regained his composure he continued with the famous line, “This is Your Life!” although somewhat subdued.
We were immediately taken to the theater on Vine Street just down from Hollywood Boulevard. The show proceeded as planned. People from her past spoke from behind the curtain and Phyllis, would respond with “That was my landlady when the family first moved to San Francisco,” or “That was the man who gave me my first break in show business,” and on and on.
One voice totally baffled her, however. The anecdote was about something that had supposedly happened in third grade. Phyllis — who had a phenomenal memory — had no recollection at all. The woman came out and Ralph Edwards introduced her as Phyllis’s third grade teacher. Phyllis smiled sweetly and the woman to prattled on for a few minutes before it was time for the next mystery voice.
The show finally wrapped up with hugs and laughter and we were once again back in the limousine headed to Phyllis’s house. Once we were safely away from the studio, Phyllis turned to me and said, “That third grade teacher? I have no idea who that was. I have never met that woman before in my life!” We had a good laugh about it. Phyllis had an unbelievable memory. If she said that was not her third grade teacher, you could bet the farm that it was not her third grade teacher.
To this day I wonder how that lady wormed her way in. And what would have happened if Phyllis had said on live television, “I have no idea who you are. You were never my teacher.” But Phyllis was a lady and that’s not anything she would do.
Thinking about it all these years later, I have to laugh. Phyllis never would have made it on a present day reality show! Thank goodness.