Marc Summers became a household name in the late ‘80s on Nickelodeon’s ooey, gooey game show for kids, Double Dare. But the charismatic host who beamed on camera as the network’s signature “slime” slid down his suit would rush to remove his clothes as soon as the broadcast ended. Summers, now 66, was suffering from crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a condition he hadn’t even heard of until he was diagnosed live on his own Lifetime talk show in 1995.
Going public put his career on hold — until the Food Network took a chance on him in 2001, tapping him to host its longest running program to date, Unwrapped.
“Most people weren’t aware what OCD was back in the late ‘90s,” he tells PEOPLE. “I was supposed to be hosting Hollywood Squares and then lost the job because people didn’t understand what Obsessive Compulsive Disorder was, and they were spreading rumors that I was difficult to work with and uncooperative, none of which was true. But people were not given the tools to learn what it was.”
Still, Summers says compulsions — he’d clean his home incessantly, lie on the living room floor straightening the fringe of a rug and get stuck at the grocery store reading the label of every product lining the aisles — gave him focus and drive.
“I’ve had kind of a charmed existence,” he says.
Summers also worked as a magician, comedian (he rubbed elbows with Robin Williams at LA’s famed Comedy Store in the ‘70s) and TV producer (Ryan Seacrest and Guy Fieri consider him a mentor). But as he says in the new documentary about his life, On Your Marc,“I’ve always thought of myself of being a player on AAA baseball and never quite making the big leagues.”
As Fieri — who affectionately calls him “Obi Wan” — put it, ““The life of Marc Summers, well, it should be a ride at an amusement park, because it’s got every twist and turn you can imagine.”
Growing up in Indiana, Summers says he “always wanted to do theater and got side-tracked along the way.” Two harrowing ordeals prompted him to pursue that passion. In 2009, he felt pain in his stomach and underwent a surgery
that removed 17.5 inches of his small intestine.
“I woke up and, being a stand-up comic, I sort of joked with the doctor, ‘Do I have cancer?’ And he says, ‘As a matter of fact, you do,’” Summers recalls. He was misdiagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma and told he had six months to live. Another oncologist determined the father of two was actually battling chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and he began two years of grueling chemotherapy with his wife of 43 years, Alice — a Natalie Wood lookalike whom he met while working
as an usher at The Mary Tyler Moore Show — by his side.
He’s now in remission, but for the four months until he was correctly diagnosed, the conflicting medical opinions made Summers and his family — wife Alice, 65, son Matthew, 37, and daughter, Meredith, 34 — think he was dying.
“The whole story about your life flashes in front of you. I called Alice from the cab, and I said, ‘I’m not going to see the kids get married. I’m not going to see our grandchildren. I’m going to be dead,’” he says. “I was a mess. I was confused. I didn’t know what the hell was going on.”
Then, in 2012, he broke every bone in his face when his taxi hydroplaned, crashing into a Philadelphia highway divider. He didn’t leave his house for months and suffered memory loss: He remembers giving a tourist wrong directions to Independence Hall, a landmark in the city he calls home, and reintroducing himself in a meeting to a TV executive he’d known for 20 years.
“My biggest fear was the fact that when I went to host another show, would I be able to retain, memory-wise?” he says.
It took nine months to a year for Summers to fully recover. “It was really frightening,” he says, and forced him to realize, “there’s no time like the present.”
Working his Broadway connections, Summers developed an autobiographical one-man play back in Indiana; the documentary chronicles its development, a chapter in Summers’ career that is both a reinvention and return to his roots.
Soon, he’s executive-producing a new Food Network program with Fieri. And after three years of cognitive therapy, Summers says his OCD is “80 percent cured,” adding, “It’s like retraining your mind not to have the intrusive thoughts and not to do the repetitive actions.”
As for all that slime? Nickelodeon’s top-secret, original recipe isn’t so gross, after all: vanilla pudding, apple sauce and green food dye.
“The insurance company made us guarantee if any of this got in the kids’ mouths it was edible,” he explains with a laugh. “And it tasted good, and it smelled great.”