Question: Hearing about the ABC fall show The Benefactor, in which the guy gives away a million bucks to someone who deserves it, reminded me of the old Millionaire show. Wasn't that pretty much the same thing? Also, what was the millionaire's name? Thank you. Elizabeth M., Perrysberg, Ohio
Televisionary: I can see the similarities, Elizabeth, but they're pretty general. The Benefactor, after all, is a reality show that has real-life contestants competing for billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's money. The Millionaire, which ran on CBS from January 1955 to September 1960, was a fictional show, with episodes relating what happened to a different character each week after personal secretary Michael Anthony (Marvin Miller) delivered a cashier's check for a million tax-free dollars to a carefully chosen stranger as a gift from his wealthy boss.
As for the second question, the boss, who was never fully seen (only the back of his head or his hand was shown, and announcer Paul Frees provided the voice), was named John Beresford Tipton. (The name was a composite of producer Don Fedderson's hometown, his wife's hometown and his lawyer's first name.)
Interestingly enough, the initial idea for the series was more along the lines of ABC's fall version. TV exec Frank Cleaver first proposed giving away the interest on a million dollars each week on a show called The Million Dollar Question, prompting Fedderson to reply: "Why not give away the whole million dollars?"
Now, of course, producers and networks are in business to make money, and you don't do that by really giving away a million bucks a week. So they crafted a different recipient's story for each episode and showed how each chose to spend their gift. For example, a cowboy used the money to pursue a New York showgirl before coming to his senses and settling down with a plain jane, and a young widow spent only $20 before giving the rest back because she realized her young son's potential stepfather hated wealthy women. (Boy, it was the '50s, huh?)
One lucky "recipient," in fact, was a cross-eyed cat whose owner willed him her modest holdings before receiving Tipton's check and then dying. A clever idea, certainly, until the producers found themselves scouring the country for a cross-eyed male calico, which the script called for, and promptly discovered that not only are nearly all calicos female a male one carries a rare genetic defect but finding a cross-eyed one made a hard job even harder. Finally a female named Elmer was found and flown to Hollywood, a lucky development that, it soon became apparent, was even luckier than anyone first realized because Elmer was especially good in front of the camera, unperturbed by hot lights and doing everything required on cue in one take. "I have never seen anything like it," director John Peyser said of the critter's performance. "And I hope I never see anything like it again because it's impossible."
The thing was, not everyone in the audience realized or, more likely, wanted to realize that they were watching a fictional show. So Miller, being the bearer of good news (and good money) on the show and the only real, consistent character, was the target of everyone looking for a million-dollar check. Some were people who were truly in need. An Ohio farmer, for instance, lost his farm, his family and his health and wrote Miller every four days to ask for $50,000. He sent 15 two-page handwritten letters before Miller had a chance to answer him. "I had to write him, as I have had to write someone every two weeks, that his faith in Tipton's millions was misplaced he's a fictional character and our stories are only for entertainment," Miller told TV Guide in 1957. "I haven't heard from him since."
But that was just the tip of the iceberg. A 10-year-old from Ottawa, Ont., wrote to Miller in French, asking for a $500 loan. An Indiana housewife wrote to say that though she and her family were comfortable, they'd always dreamed of owning their own dairy farm. It finally got to the point where Miller had fake checks, each with its own serial number, printed up to send to people, signing each himself.
Which wasn't good enough for an elderly New Jersey couple who wrote to ask for a few thousand dollars. Miller wrote them back to explain that the show was just for entertainment's sake. They called him collect, and he refused to take the call. So they wired him, asking him to call them collect. He ignored it. Finally, he received a prepaid phone call from their daughter, whereupon he once again explained how things worked. Thinking that would be the end of it, he sent them one of his fake checks, explaining that it was at best a good-luck charm and had no real value. A few months later, they wrote again, complaining that no one was willing to cash the check he sent. After he sent them a curt reply, they informed him that they'd gone into debt buying things because they'd expected to be able to cash his check. After he ignored them again, they let him know they were burning black candles and splitting them down the middle, which meant Miller's house would soon burn down.
The most intelligent piece of correspondence came from a 12-year-old girl who saw an interview wherein Miller talked about such letters. "Adults are stupid to believe John Beresford Tipton and Michael Anthony are real," she wrote. "Don't worry; we kids know better."