Walk of Fame: Howie Mandel

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It looked like a risky proposition. It was 2005, and reality shows such as CBS' "Big Brother" and Fox's "American Idol" were going strong. Game shows, however, were on the outs, as the networks remembered all too well ABC's defunct quizzer "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," which had flamed out in 2002 after three seasons.

Still, NBC decided to take a chance, airing a weeklong game show special event called "Deal or No Deal" just before Christmas. Now, nearly 200 episodes later, "Deal," originated by Endemol in the Netherlands, has proved to be a long-term player. It was the network's most watched game show in the 2006-07 season, and in the words of Craig Plestis, executive vp alternative programming, development and specials for NBC Entertainment, its statistics continue to be "quite incredible."

Beyond reviving the game show genre and drawing eyeballs to NBC, "Deal" has transformed the career of its host, longtime comedian and actor Howie Mandel, whom Endemol USA president David Goldberg describes as "the glue that keeps it all together."

These are prosperous and prolific times for Mandel, who has been in the business for three decades. He's done HBO specials and thousands of stand-up dates; had his own short-lived talker, "The Howie Mandel Show"; starred in goofball features like 1987's "Walk Like a Man"; and spent six seasons as Dr. Wayne Fiscus on the 1980s medical drama "St. Elsewhere." Possessing impressive vocal ability, he gave voice to Gizmo in 1984's "The Gremlins," various voices in Jim Henson's "Muppet Babies" series, Bobby (among other characters) on the long-running '90s animated series "Bobby's World" and, more recently, Inwar in Promenade Pictures' upcoming animated feature "Noah's Ark: A New Beginning."

But thanks to "Deal," with its comedy, tragedy and broad appeal, Mandel has achieved a new level of exposure. "This game seems to cater to the needs of the widest audience that I've ever done any project for," he says.

The show has also earned him his first major award nomination -- for an Emmy as outstanding reality/reality-competition host. It's a deal made sweeter by the fact this is the category's debut year, and Mandel and the other nominees -- Tom Bergeron (ABC's "Dancing With the Stars"), Heidi Klum (Bravo's "Project Runway"), Jeff Probst (CBS' "Survivor") and Ryan Seacrest ("Idol") -- will team up to host the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on Sept. 21.

But that's not all: Mandel is also being honored Thursday with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. Appropriately, it will be situated right in front of comedy club iO West, formerly the Improv Olympic West, near the stars of fellow funnymen Chris Farley, Rodney Dangerfield and John Belushi.

"For me, the huge success is just having a job," says the father of three. "So having this job now is just amazing, and then to get all these accolades for this job is like icing on the cake."

Had he followed his gut, Mandel likely wouldn't be having his cake and eating it too, since he initially rejected the offer to host "Deal."

"I didn't want to host a game show. I didn't see that as a viable path for my career," he says. "Through great coaxing from my wife -- she said, 'Take the deal, otherwise you're an idiot' -- I took the deal, and I had no idea where it would lead."

Interestingly, "Deal" led Mandel full circle, back to NBC, where he began his network TV career on "St. Elsewhere." And Mandel looks set to enjoy another long and prosperous run with the Peacock net, as he now has a production company, Alevy Prods. -- named after his parents, Al and Evy -- at NBC Universal.

"We hope to be in a long-term business with him," says NBC's Plestis. "I want NBC to be his home."

Through Alevy, Mandel is channeling his infectious, childlike energy into developing a number of projects, both scripted and unscripted, including a dating show and what Alevy vp Mike Marks, Mandel's producing partner, calls "a stand-up comedian version of karaoke." Front and center, however, is hidden-camera series "Howie Do It," which is slated to appear on the NBC schedule before the end of the year. It's a natural for Mandel, who gets lots of laughs with his recurring "Hidden Howie" spot on NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

"There really hasn't been a fresh hidden-camera show on network TV in a long time," Plestis says. "In the same way that 'Deal or No Deal' was the first game show on TV (in a while) -- and probably the best game show -- we're going to be the first hidden-camera show in a long time on network TV, and I think the best one."

Says Marks: "Thematically, a lot of our pranks or segments (on 'Howie Do It') are related to people's desire to be famous and are kind of satirizing reality TV and the current culture of how everybody wants their 15 minutes. So, not only do we feel like timing-wise there aren't a lot of (hidden-camera shows) on right now, but I think it's going to feel very contemporary and relatable."

Also on the slate at Alevy is a game show called "Would You Rather ... ?" based on the cringe-inducing Falls Media book series of the same name. If talks with NBC go as hoped, "Would You Rather ... ?" will delight and disgust audiences all over the country with pairs of equally foul choices.

"Deal" executive producer Scott St. John, who will executive produce "Would You Rather ...?" alongside Mandel, calls it a natural fit. "Sometimes the ('Deal') models backstage will play, 'Would you rather do this, or would you rather do that?' It got us thinking about that as a game format," he says. "We saw people playing and said, 'That would be good if you amped it up and tweaked it.'"

With Alevy's scripted projects, Mandel is returning to his one-hour-drama roots, developing "Kill-Switch," a series for the Sci Fi Channel that is being written by Don Mancini, who penned the "Child's Play" and "Chucky" films. The series will follow a young woman who occupies a sort of purgatory that condemns her to inhabit the bodies of people who will be murdered within 48 hours, unless she can prevent it.

On the animated front, little Bobby might come pedaling back into the spotlight as well, as Mandel wants to revive "Bobby's World" -- and for good reason. Part of Fox's Saturday-morning cartoon lineup from 1990-98, the show maintains a strong following even now. "There isn't a place I go (on tour) where people aren't screaming out, 'Do Bobby!'" Mandel says. "He is still very recognized, and I think that there is an audience out there."

But Mandel and company have their sights set on more than just television. "We're really trying to be a multimedia company. We're mostly television right now, but we're dabbling in Internet and film," Marks says. "We're an idea-driven company, so if we like an idea, we just try to find the best platform for it. Right now we're spearheading Howie's Facebook and MySpace presence and trying to organize a great site with some original content that will give his fans the Howie experience."

They're open to anything that excites Mandel, Marks says, including developing original games. "Howie represents such a specific brand, and the gaming market is a huge family space, which is exactly what Howie does so well," Marks says. "So it's kind of a natural segue for us."

As if that's not enough, the popularity of "Deal," which began its fourth season on Aug. 25, seems to know no bounds. Additionally, a modified first-run syndication version of "Deal," which will be 30 minutes long instead of one hour and will offer a potential cash prize of $500,000 instead of $1 million, will debut in the U.S. and Canada on Sept. 8.

Naturally, Mandel will host the syndicated version as well. "'Deal or No Deal' is my baby," he says. "I wouldn't want anybody else to drive my bus."

But despite his success, as NBC's Plestis notes, Mandel "hasn't lost his roots at all." Even now, he does as many as 200 stand-up comedy dates a year, and he says he'll never quit the stage.

"Sometimes, it's very insular to be here in L.A. and to try to be entertaining for the whole nation. The whole nation isn't just L.A.," he says. "So I feel it's important not only for myself -- I love standing onstage and being the center of attention and getting a laugh; there's no better feeling in the world -- but it's good practice for me to be in touch with as many people as I possibly can all over the nation so that when I come back here to Los Angeles, and I'm making television and performing on television, I'm speaking to as many people as I possibly can."

While some entertainers might struggle with such a varied and voluminous workload, Mandel seems to thrive on it. "I've got ADHD, and my career fits perfectly into my affliction," he continues. "I look forward to each day, and then tomorrow, I'm doing something completely different."
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