October 28, 1996 12:00 PM

TO FIND THE RIGHT HOST FOR HIS new quiz show, Debt, television executive Michael Davies gave himself two clues: What man held the answer cards for nearly two-dozen game shows over the past 32 years? And who could claim the snappiest name in game show history? “It was a gut call,” Davies recalls. “But it felt totally right to me.” The answer: Wink Martindale. Ding!

Davies picked a winner. Just four months after its debut, Debt—the weeknight quiz show that gives its contestants a shot at winning their way out of real-life financial jeopardy—has become the Lifetime cable network’s biggest hit series. Much of the credit for Debt’s success, says Davies, goes to its 62-year-old host, whose smooth, perma-tanned charisma lends just the right glimmer of glam to the show’s lowbrow humor. Choosing from categories such as, Really Bad Girls, Five Good Things About Being Dead and What’ll You Have, Honey? (which includes questions about diners), three contestants compete to answer questions posed in tommy-gun staccato by Martindale in what he calls his “I am—you are” format. For example, Martindale says, “I am the title you get once you’re canonized by the Catholic Church.” The contestant responds, “You are a saint, Wink.”

“First of all, that name—Wink—is great, and so is just the whole way he speaks,” Davies says of Martindale’s appeal. “He’s just totally cool.”

Martindale’s career, on the other hand, was chillier, at least until Debt came along. Though he had hosted a number of hit game shows since his national TV debut in 1964, Martindale’s run at the top ended in 1984, when he left Tic Tac Dough after seven years to host Headline Chasers, a syndicated topical game show of his own creation. It lasted only a year. “That was a big, big letdown,” he says. By the early ’90s, Martindale figured the days of the tuxedoed TV answer man were over.

Then Davies, a senior VP for Disney’s Buena Vista Television, created Debt. Hoping to give the show a retro-hipness, Davies explains, “we crafted it to look like a classic ’50s or ’60s game show.” But while this schlocky cardboard set and tuxedoed host lend Debt that genuine Burbank look, it is Martindale’s tongue-in-cheek demeanor—the Saturday Night Fever pose he strikes when he hits the stage and his trademark “The nation’s in debt, you’re probably in debt, so let’s get this party started!” battle cry—that gives the show its charm. “Game show hosts have to be kind of cheesy,” says actor Jeff Nimoy, who in July won $16,224 to pay off a pile of outstanding student loans and credit card charges. “Wink is the quintessential game show host.”

It’s the life Martindale has always wanted. One of five children of lumber inspector James Martindale and his homemaker wife, Frances, Wink (born Winston, he was given his nickname by a boyhood friend) grew up in Jackson, Tenn., where as a 17-year-old he went to work at the local radio station run by his Sunday school teacher. “I used to bug the hell out of him to give me a job,” Martindale recalls. Soon he was earning $25 a week as an announcer. In 1952, Martindale moved to Memphis, where he worked as a disc jockey—and hosted a local Saturday morning kids’ TV show called Wink Martindale’s Mars Patrol—while earning a speech-and-drama degree at Memphis State University. He was married in 1954 to Madelyn Leech, his high school sweetheart, and started a family (Lisa, now 41, Lyn, 40, Laura, 37, and Wink Jr., 35). The Martindales moved to Los Angeles in 1959. There, Wink spun records on radio stations until 1964, when he landed on national TV hosting NBC’s What’s This Song? He had found his calling. Many other shows followed—Gambit, High Rollers, the long-lived Tic Tac Dough. In fact, only the late Bill Cullen of The Price Is Right fame has hosted more. “I wouldn’t say I’m the best,” says Martindale, “but I do it well. The main thing is creating the drama. You build up the suspense so you can almost hear a pin drop.”

Divorced in 1971, Martindale now lives with his second wife Sandy, 51, who helps manage his career, and their six Chihuahuas in a six-bedroom Tudor-style home in the hills north of Los Angeles, where the only suspense centers on how far Debt will take his revived career. (A possible move to syndication or a major network is in the talking stage.) Martindale is up for anything—except retirement. “Retire from what? Having fun? I’ve never had more fun in my life,” he insists. Especially when those credit card bills come due at the end of the month. Debt, after all, is the name of the game.


KEN BAKER in Los Angeles

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