Pebble Beach resident Peter Funt, 70, has spent decades writing for newspapers, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Between journalism gigs, he has been intimately involved in the production of “Candid Camera,” the hit television program created in 1948 by his father, the late Allen Funt (he died in 1999). Peter Funt took over and went on to host the show on CBS, cable and TV Land, and now he’s keeping it alive with “Candid Camera’s 8 Decades of Smiles! With Peter Funt,” a stage act that includes comedy, reminiscences and clips from the series. It comes to San Jose later this month.
J.: With its hidden camera, “Candid Camera” played jokes on people or caught them behaving in hilarious ways, but it never seemed mean and was all in good fun. Is that accurate?
Peter Funt: Absolutely. “Candid Camera” was a celebration of humanity, and we wanted to show that people are wonderful and good sports. My father was interested in a variety of human experiences — how people walked up and down stairs, chewed gum, licked a stamp. My dad was not a practical joker or much of a joke-teller. But he was a student of human nature without a degree. David Riesman, who co-authored the influential book “The Lonely Crowd,” a sociological study of Americans, said that Allen Funt was the second-greatest social psychologist in this country [after sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld].
Most people understood what “Candid Camera” was doing, and, when caught on the hidden camera, very few refused to sign the release that would allow their footage to air on TV — less than 1 percent. Those who did refuse were usually in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people, such as someone who was with a woman who was not his wife.
Many recall an episode during the show’s 1960s heyday that stood out for an unusual reason. Can you elaborate?
Yes, in 1961, we were at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. My father, whose parents had been born in Russia, was concerned that the entire Soviet population was being painted with a broad brush of contempt. So he took his cameraman and audio man to Moscow for a week, under a tourist visa, and they shot ordinary Russians. When they came back to the States, they realized that half of the film had been fogged, perhaps by the Soviets, who maybe knew what Allen Funt was doing. But there was enough footage left to make a half-hour show from that one week in Moscow. CBS, which was airing “Candid Camera” at the time, didn’t want to run it. So my father took it all the way to the top to William Paley, who ran CBS. Paley gave it the OK. When it ran, it got a fantastic amount of coverage by critics and magazines. It legitimized my dad’s work.
Your father was Jewish and your mother was a Lutheran from the Midwest. What was your father’s relationship to his Jewish heritage?
My father’s parents were Russian Jews, and my grandfather had studied to become a rabbi. But when he came to the States, to Brooklyn, he became a diamond dealer.
When CBS chose Arthur Godfrey in the early 1960s as my father’s co-host on “Candid Camera,” Godfrey was an owner of a hotel in Florida that did not allow Jews. One of the reasons my dad suspected that he and Godfrey did not get along was because of Godfrey’s anti-Semitism. Godfrey lasted only a year on the show. In 1966, my dad chose Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America, as his co-host. There were not a lot of women, much less Jewish women, on TV in such a role. My dad and Bess became very close friends, and she was the godmother of my younger half-siblings.
Interestingly, I married a woman, Amy Meltzer, who is a very fastidious Jew. We were married by a rabbi, and both my son and daughter became b’nai mitzvah. My wife is still very involved in synagogue life on the Monterey Peninsula.
While your father marched to the beat of his own drum and eschewed organizational life of any kind, he did his own kind of Jewish charitable work, right?
When I was growing up in Westchester in a large house with tennis courts and a pool, my father, who was a big-hearted guy who loved all kids, would go down to a police station in Lower Manhattan every summer and ask them if there were a bunch of neighborhood boys who needed a break from the city. This was back in the early 1960s, when it was possible to do something like this. So a bunch of boys would come up for five or six weeks, and I would be their counselor.
“Candid Camera” eventually moved its headquarters from New York to Los Angeles, so how did you and your father end up in the Monterey area?
In the 1970s, my dad bought a ranch in Big Sur to raise cattle and quarter horses. He also had a house in Hollywood because the show was located down there. [Allen Funt died in 1999.] Because we would go around the country to film episodes, he’d say to me, “I’ll take everything west of the Hollywood Freeway, and you take everything east,” meaning the rest of the country.