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Harry Friedman and Mary Hart Talk Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Wins

Variety logo Variety 4/27/2017 Whitney Friedlander
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The Lifetime Achievement awards at the 2017 Daytime Emmys will be presented to two luminaries of syndicated television: producer Harry Friedman and host Mary Hart.

After producing syndicated game-show sensations “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” for more than 20 years, it isn’t a surprise that Friedman himself is a trivia question answer.

Friedman, who was promoted to executive producer of both shows in 1999 after starting as a “Wheel” producer in 1995, has been at his gig for so long that he holds a Guinness World Record for most game-show episodes produced. And the most Emmy Award nominations for a game-show producer (42) and most Emmy Award wins by a game-show producer (13).

So it’s no surprise he’ll receive a lifetime achievement award at this year’s Daytime Emmys creative arts ceremony. And it’s also understandable that it’s hard for Friedman to list all his favorite moments from the sets.

“One of the things that stands out on ‘Jeopardy!’ was that we were able to accommodate a blind contestant [Eddie Timanus in 1999],” Friedman recalls. “Eddie was delightful. … In the fifth game, things got kind of tricky. There was a contestant jumping all over the board and Eddie was able to follow the play of the game even though he couldn’t see what the scores are or even what clues were remaining.”

Timanus won $69,700 before retiring after five consecutive wins.

Friedman credits a lot of his shows’ successes to the long-time hosts associated with them, “Wheel’s” Pat Sajak and Vanna White and “Jeopardy!’s” Alex Trebek. “It’s amazing that, after all these years, they’re all still engaged in the game as they are,” Friedman says.

He also is fond of the tweaks he and his teams have come up with to keep both shows fresh. For “Wheel,” he likes “risk-reward scenarios” such as round two Mystery Wedges that could grant a contestant $10,000 or leave them bankrupt.

But perhaps the biggest shock about Friedman’s job? All these years have apparently made him immune to “Think!,” the Merv Griffin-composed earworm synonymous with “Jeopardy!.”

“I don’t [get it stuck in my head], but I will often hear it on the radio with those radio call-in questions,” he laughs.

Sorry, Gay Talese. When Mary Hart attempted to interview Frank Sinatra she was not told that he had a cold.

Sure, there was plenty of nervous waiting and will-he-or-won’t-he wondering during the 90 minutes that Ol’ Blue Eyes kept the venerable “Entertainment Tonight” host waiting. But eventually the interview did happen.

“At one point I said, ‘Frank, you are notoriously anti-press and you have a reputation for being a really tough interview. I’m not finding that to be true,’” Hart recollects. “He said, ‘I have been mistreated by the press, but I like people to do their homework and be prepared and sometimes they’re not. You are.’”

Doing her research was par for the course for Hart during her time on syndicated entertainment news show “ET,” a series she hosted from 1982 until her retirement in 2011. It’s also one of the reasons she will be honored with a lifetime achievement award at this year’s Daytime Emmys. During her extensive tenure, Hart helped teach generations of celebrity-obsessed fans about the latest goings-on in Hollywood. She also helped take the beat in a more wholesome direction from the worlds of such gossip columnists as Dorothy Kilgallen or Hedda Hopper while also giving a taste of what would be required to feed the monster of the internet’s non-stop news cycle.

“You can’t avoid entertainment [now] and that’s what we started,” says Hart, who these days is known for her work with organizations including Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where she is on the board of trustees, and National Geographic. “I think there’s such competition to break the story and to be the first one … I don’t think that’s always the best thing for television. I even see it in serious news stories where facts about news come out incorrectly — that happened to us too — and then you have to go on the air and apologize.”

It’s likely Hart will always be known for her bubbly positivity and interest in people. Back in the ‘90s, she actually considered calling to check in with a woman afflicted by the headline-grabbing malady, Mary Hart Syndrome — i.e. that her voice on “ET” caused this viewer to have seizures. For obvious reasons, Hart did not make the call, but she did appreciate that “Seinfeld” referenced the incident.

“Whether you get good reviews or bad reviews, I’ve always felt it takes a sense of humor because look at what I got to do,” Hart says. “I was so privileged to have a career all those years and I really tried to enjoy every aspect of it.”

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