Obituary: Allen Funt

Tom Vallance
Tuesday 07 September 1999 23:02

AS THE creator and original presenter of Candid Camera, the television show that caught ordinary citizens unaware with bizarre or outrageous situations and recorded their reactions for posterity, Allen Funt was responsible for a strand of broadcasting that led (for better or worse) to the more recent exploits of such broadcasters as Noel Edmonds, Victor Lewis-Smith, Chris Morris and, most notably, Jeremy Beadle.

In the words of Funt's son Peter, who still hosts Candid Camera 51 years after his father created it, "My father was one of the inventors of the entire genre of reality television. In an age when TV shows are considered successful if they survive 13 weeks, it's unheard of for a programme to still be pleasing millions of people after 51 years."

Allen Funt hosted and managed the show from its inception in 1948 until he had a stroke in 1993, concluding each exploit with his catch-phrase, "Smile, you're on Candid Camera", after victims had been confronted with such situations as a vending machine that talked back, a bowling ball that came back down the chute with no finger holes, or a car without an engine. A British version proved equally successful, originally hosted by Jonathan Routh with film sequences introduced by Bob Monkhouse.

Funt refused to be regarded as a practical joker, preferring to describe himself as a student of human nature who was able to catch unsuspecting people in "the art of being themselves". He also produced two feature films, movie shorts, three books and seven record albums, nearly all built on the concept of the hidden camera.

The son of a diamond merchant, Funt was born in New York City and graduated from high school at the age of 15. He attended art school and earned a degree from Cornell University before going to work in the art department of an advertising agency. After working in their radio department writing copy he moved into the world of broadcasting, working with Eleanor Roosevelt on her radio commentaries and providing gags for the hit quiz show Truth or Consequences. (Devised by Ralph Edwards, it was one of the first shows to demonstrate the public's willingness to perform foolish antics, such as talking like a baby or howling like a dog, to get a laugh.)

Drafted into the Army Signal Corps during the Second World War, Funt was stationed in Oklahoma and reading the "gripe column" in the army newspaper Yank one day when he thought of recording the complaints of servicemen for broadcast. The original idea did not work as the soldiers were too self-concious and the format flat and colourless, so Funt devised the idea of a hidden microphone to record their spontaneous gripes. The result was hilarious, and after the war Funt developed the idea for a radio programme Candid Microphone, first broadcast on the ABC network in 1947.

Because there were no portable recorders in those days, Funt would lure victims into his office, posing as a businessman - one early stunt involved a locksmith brought in to release Funt's secretary, who had been chained to her desk, bringing a startled, then indignant response from the man. Soon after the show went on, a portable recorder was developed, allowing Funt to roam the world at large. Funt never broadcast segments without signed permission, usually obtained by appealing to sportmanship and slipping the victim $15. With an uncanny instinct, he seemed to know how hard to push, and when to stop before his victim resorted to punching him on the nose.

In 1948, ABC put the show on television, still called Candid Microphone, but when it moved to NBC in 1949 it was re-christened Candid Camera. Early gags included two memorable ones involving cars. In one a tiny foreign car pulled into a service station, the driver asking for a "fill up". The hidden camera recorded the attendant's growing astonishment as the midget car drained the station dry - there was a tank concealed in the boot. In another sequence a car came down a hill and pulled up in front of a passer-by, the driver asking for help to get it started. When the hood was raised, there was no engine.

Funt's greatest coup was a sequence filmed in Moscow without the permission or knowledge of Russian authorities. He managed to smuggle himself, cameramen, hidden cameras and 90,000 feet of film into and out of the Soviet Union undetected (border guards assuming he was a tourist) and staged many of his favourite stunts on Russian streets, including his two-suitcase gag. (A pretty girl with two suitcases asks a passing male to help her carry one; hers is empty but his is filled with 200 pounds of concrete.) To Funt's astonishment, a burly Russian picked up the suitcase and carried it without blinking an eye.

The major difference between Candid Camera's approach and that of today's practitioners was its comparative innocence and lack of cruelty - people were rarely made to suffer like the man reduced to tears when Jeremy Beadle had his beloved garden filled with manure.

Candid Camera played on all three major networks in the United States, achieving top ratings both on the networks and in syndication, and Funt was active in its management until a stroke in 1993 resulted in his retirement to Pebble Beach, California, where he had been raising Hereford cattle and quarter-horses on his 1,100-acre ranch since the late 1970s. The show has since continued with his son Peter as host, and is screened in Britain on Challenge TV.

During his active years, Funt also produced two movies, the first, What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? (1970), a successful X-rated production which displayed the reactions of people, watched by a hidden camera, to a number of erotic situations. A sequel, Money Talks (1972), in which people revealed their attitudes to money unaware they are being filmed, had less appeal.

Archives from Candid Camera are still used in college sociology courses, business training and, according to Funt's son, even in medical research. "I asked my father once what he considered his proudest achievement," said Peter Funt, "and he said, `To be able to go almost anywhere in the world and have people say, "Thanks, Allen, you made us smile." ' "

Funt donated his recordings and films to his old university, Cornell, and established a fellowship at Syracuse University for postgraduate studies in radio and television. He also established a Laughter Therapy Foundation to provide seriously ill patients with his videocassettes, and for a time he taught psychology at Monterey Peninsula College. "When people are smiling," he said, "they are most receptive to almost anything you want to teach them."

Michael Naidus, a spokesman for CBS-TV, said, "People toss around the word pioneer all the time but Allen Funt was really one of those rare people who was a pioneer. He created what has become an entire programming genre."

Allen Funt, television producer and presenter: born New York 16 September 1914; married Marilyn Laron (three sons, two daughters); died Pebble Beach, California 5 September 1999.

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