June 19, 1952 - April 3, 1967


CBS Prime Time


John Cannon


Mark Goodson-Bill Todman Productions

"Hi, I'm (celebrity guest), and I've Got a Secret!"

Bill's longest lasting gig wasn't in the middle of the spotlight, but sharing it. He served as regular panelist & occasional guest host for almost fifteen years on this immensely popular game from Goodson-Todman.

A contestant came onstage and whispered his/her secret to the emcee—originally Garry Moore, and later Steve Allen—while the audience saw it superimposed on the screen...

One at a time, each of the four panelists had about 30 seconds to cross-examine the contestant asking only yes-no questions. Each panelist whose time elapsed without figuring out the secret paid $20, for a top possible prize of $80 (plus a carton of cigarettes sometimes, depending on who was sponsoring the show that week).

A celebrity guest also dropped by with a secret on each show (such as Desi Arnaz, seen above with a perfectly appropriate secret).

The show came into existence when a pair of writers, Allan Sherman & Howard Merrill, came into Goodson-Todman’s offices and pitched an idea for a show that was noticeably similar to “What’s My Line?” Mark Goodson & Bill Todman flatly rejected the idea, telling them that they didn’t want to steal their own idea. Sherman famously responded, “You might as well, because if you don’t start copying your shows, somebody else will.” Producer Gil Fates recalled later that Goodson & Todman were impressed by such a promise/threat, and “I’ve Got a Secret” set sail in the summer of 1952.

To offset comparisons to “What’s My Line?” the premiere episode had a courtroom setting, with Garry Moore acting as “judge” and the panelists each acting as prosecutors, standing and approaching the contestants for questioning. The result looked so awful that the set was burned immediately afterward and replaced by two desks placed across stage from each other.

This is one example the surprising trouble that “I’ve Got a Secret” had getting onto the right footing early in its run. It was originally presented as a straightforward game with panelists seriously attempting to win. The problem with the straightforward secrets was that they just weren’t that interesting. If a contestant’s secret was, for example, “I shook hands with the president”…well, who cares?

Two changes helped the show find its groove within one year, however. One was the addition of Henry Morgan, who played the game but clearly didn’t care about winning. Bill followed that lead as time went by, and eventually new panelists were told to simply stop caring if the game got too difficult. The other change was looking for wilder secrets (for example, a woman named Ivy Ivy whose secret was “I have poison ivy”).

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Garry Moore remembers some of the wilder secrets of the series on a 1984 ABC Network special.

As time passed by, it seemed to become less of a game show and more of a variety show pretending to be a game show. (There was at least one episode, a Christmas special, with no secrets whatsoever.) As the show evolved, the time limit for each panelist was not taken seriously (a good example of this was was when panelist Henry Morgan said, "I think I have it!", only to be buzzed by the judge immediately and lose his turn).

Also, more and more often, contestants' secrets involved demonstrations of their skills & feats. Secrets frequently made use of  music, dancing, brief skits, or some other type of performance. If the secret wasn't performing, it at least entertaining ("I'm wearing a suit made of dollar bills," "Our names are the months of the year", etc.)

Gradually, the celebrity appearances didn't involve secrets but rather parlor games or silly stunts to perform with the panel. Hugh O'Brian roped Bill Cullen into performing a dramatic scene with him. Betsy Palmer gave an impromptu performance of a song from "South Pacific" when the contestant turned out to be her leading man in the role. Bill had to help Jayne Meadows put on her earrings without either of them using their hands. Betsy had to don a blindfold and figure out, by touch, which of three crew-cutted men was Bill. The entire panel was treated to a pantomime performance by Dick Van Dyke, trying to guess what kind of "slice of life" scenes he was acting out.

The result of all of this tinkering was that "I've Got a Secret" became possibly the most influential panel show in the genre. When "What's My Line" became a daily syndicated show in 1968, the presentation of the show was tweaked to look closer to "Secret." "Secret" itself would be revived in 1972 for syndication, again for CBS in 1976, for Oxygen as a daily series in 1999, and for GSN. Panel shows in general became livelier and played for comedy.

Bill joined on the third episode as a substitute panelist but was such a superb player that he stayed for 15 years. His glib, silly manner ended up being the ideal counterpoint to fellow panelist Henry Morgan's grumpy demeanor, and his interaction with fellow panelists Faye Emerson, Bess Myerson, Betsy Palmer, and Jayne Meadows was always good for a laugh.

Bill also had an excellent intuitive mind here, and, while no track records were kept over the years, I would wager that he guessed more secrets than any other panelist...And once in a while, he was even the focus of a secret himself!

This one comes courtesy of YouTube user philofarnsworth.

Perhaps Bill's finest hour as a panelist came during the Christmas season in 1956. Garry Moore casually noted on one episode that while Henry Morgan, Faye Emerson, and Jayne Meadows frequently got to engage in some wild extracurricular activities for certain secrets, Bill's busy daily schedule precluded him from having any real fun beyond his 30 minutes a week on the panel. Garry encouraged the viewers at home to cheer Bill up by mailing Christmas presents to CBS in the name of "Good Old Bill." Seven days later, Garry opened the show by announcing that 148,000 packages addressed to "Good Old Bill, New York City" had arrived, and the entire Christmas 1956 episode of "Secret" consisted of Garry, Bill, and Henry opening packages to see what Bill had received. Among the treasures were grass clipping from Elvis Presley's lawn, live mice & kittens, and a closet key mailed in by a four-year-old girl who didn't realize that the closet contained her presents that year (Goodson-Todman brought her and her father to the theater during the show and encouraged them to search the stage for the key).

Click the covers to read the articles!


Bill has a chat with Garry Moore backstage before the "Good Old Bill" Christmas special.

Garry, Bill, and the rest of the panel join some of the behind-the-scenes personnel in celebrating the show's 7th Anniversary

From a 1950s magazine article. Not sure what this contestant's secret is, but I'm guessing it's "I immediately regret doing this."

Mark Goodson joins Garry Moore and the panel for this shot from a magazine article.

Preparing for a time slot change.

Another picture from the same session.

From a magazine article. Garry Moore took the summer off  to go boating in Europe and his spot was filled for most of that time by "$64,000 Question" emcee Hal March. When Garry returned, he had the tables turned on him. Hal & the panel acted as co-hosts that night and Garry acted as  sole panelist, trying to guess secrets that were used while he was gone.

Garry Moore & the panel, as seen in a magazine article.

A photo of Garry Moore & the panel, from the first edition of the Encyclopedia of TV Game Shows.


A shot of the panel from late in the run of the series.

From a special cross-promotional week when the regular panels of "To Tell the Truth" and "I've Got a Secret" traded jobs. Standing L-R: "IGAS" host Steve Allen, "TTTT" host Bud Collyer, Betsy Palmer, Bill Cullen, Bess Myerson, Henry Morgan.
Seated L-R: Tom Poston, Peggy Cass, Orson Bean, Kitty Carlisle.

A strange set of caricatures of the panel, host Steve Allen, and a cute little alien


For the definitive resource of sights, sounds, and memories from "I've Got a Secret," visit Tommy Gun's marvelous site by clicking down below:

Up One Level to: The Shows of Bill Cullen

Up Two Levels to: Bill Cullen's World

Up Three Levels to: Game Show Utopia