As TV’s Sultan of Sadism, it was only a matter of time before Chuck Barris decided he ought to be in pictures. Four years ago he went public in tailored jeans and tails emceeing The Gong Show. Last year his corporation grossed $32 million on such other embarrassments as The Newlywed Game, The $1.98 Beauty Show and Three’s a Crowd. But at 50, Chuck needed more. “I wanted to make a little statement,” he says with a straight face. “The film shouted to be done.”
Surely only Chuck heard the cries, and the R-rated result, The Gong Show Movie, is not going to change the minds of the defenders of public taste. Opening in some 900 theaters this week, the $3.5 million movie includes some quasi-documentary material about Barris, plus a dozen segments censored as too offensive even for the shameless TV version—a Christ-like figure, for example, is seen on the cross singing Release Me.
While Barris has temporarily halted production of new TV shows, the movie makes clear that it was not a crisis of conscience, but rather a matter of declining profits. “You want to milk the commerciality of a situation,” Barris admits. He directed the film, composed the five sound-track songs and was coauthor of the script. The plot, a hyped-up account of Barris’ life, depicts him near nervous breakdown under the assault of wacky Gong Show hopefuls. Even Barris’ daughter, Delia, 17, and the woman he has lived with for three years, Robin Altman, 28, are dragged into the action.
“Robin used to work in our accounting department, but she was going with someone else, so I had to play it just hugs and kisses and copping a little feel,” the divorced Barris discloses with his usual delicacy. “Then I threw my back out, and she came over with these heating pads because she had the same problem. We’ve been living together ever since.” Tending Chuck is now her full-time job. “It exhausts me keeping up with him,” says Robin, whose nickname is Red. “He’s completely different from the guy on The Gong Show. He’s cuddly, sensitive and shy. A sophisticated Walter Mitty.”
One un-Mittyesque fantasy in the film involves daughter Delia, who lives in her own apartment with a house-keeper near Dad’s pad. “I see her all the time, but at 17 she’s running her own life, a lot of which I don’t want to hear about,” says Chuck. “What I don’t know really doesn’t hurt me.” In the movie scenario, however, Delia suddenly shows up and announces she wants to marry 6’6″ black basketball star Bill Bridges. Scenes like that are not exactly going to bury questions of decorum that have plagued Barris for years. “Is somebody singing with a lampshade on her head worse than a pistol whipping on a detective show?” retorts Chuck. “I never considered taste or intelligence in my shows. My thrust was always entertaining the lowest common denominator.”
En route to that vocation, Barris grew up in Philadelphia, the son of a Main Line dentist and a housewife. He attended six colleges before finally graduating from the Drexel Institute of Technology in 1953 and soon wed the niece of CBS tycoon William Paley. Her family, Chuck says, promptly gonged her out of her inheritance. Angered, Barris tried (unsuccessfully) to prove himself as a film editor, fight promoter, TelePrompTer salesman and minor ABC official. Finally striking out on his own, Chuck was down to his last $72 when ABC bought his first series, The Dating Game, in 1965. Four years later he had 22 weekly half hours on TV, an adoring staff of 60 that called him “Chuckie Baby,” a Rolls-Royce, a mammoth Malibu home, $8 million and a divorce. He then moved into the modest three-bedroom Hollywood Hills home he now shares with Robin, and in 1974 wrote a best-selling autobiographical novel, You and Me, Babe, which explored his failed marriage and began his self-revelation.
“I don’t enjoy a lot of the stuff that comes with my job,” Chuck does confess. “I must be doing it for greed and the security. I play racquetball every day or else I just blow up.” Other outlets: reading 10 books a week (including a surprising lot of heavy stuff) and sitting in on guitar with the Cowboys, an informal C&W group made up of his studio staffers. Despite his current production freeze, he has a new show, Leave It to the Girls, in the works and still has not completed his second novel, The Game Show Man. His second movie, Barris swears, won’t be “a Gong Show-son-of, but a Where’s Poppa? or a Harold and Maude. I’d like to stop jumping around like an idiot,” adds Chuckie Baby. “If I get that message out, that would be cool.”