Gene Rayburn is a survivor in television, a medium that often makes stars overnight then discards them just as quickly when ratings drop.
He's been on the tube almost continuously since 1953, and his wide toothy grin still flashes daily across the country in the daytime program "The Match Game".
But when he gets the chance, Rayburn breaks from the TV grind and heads for the stage, and right now he's rehearsing his role of Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol," which opens at the Charles Playhouse Dec. 2.
Last week, taking time out from rehearsal, Rayburn said: "I love doing a play. It's a break from TV and I believe in a diversified life. People know me through television, but I've done a lot of theater. This past year I played Tribute' two months in Dallas, and last summer I was in I Ought To Be in Pictures' in Denver and Traverse City, Michigan."
Wearing a gray turtle neck sweater and plaid pants, the lanky Rayburn sat upright for some picture taking and then lolled back comfortably on the sofa.
"I feel right at home in Boston. I love this city and maybe I'll live here someday," he said.
He won't have to move far. He spends most of the year in his oceanfront home on Cape Cod. "If you don't mind please don't mention the town. Sometimes when sightseers discover my home, they just pull right in the driveway to the front door."
He quickly added that he wasn't one of those reclusive stars who avoids public appearances or refuses to give autographs. "Oh no, nothing like that. I accept all that as part of what it costs to be a public figure"
There's one place where he really welcomes public attention. "I own a roller skating rink in Hyannis, Pro Skate, and it's fine with me if customers come in to see me. The more the better," he said with a laugh.
How did he get into roller skating? "Well, I loved skating as a kid, and a few years ago my wife Helen and I decided to buy some skates and we began skating on sidewalks in California. When some friends asked if we were interested in starting a roller skating rink in Hyannis, we were all for it."
As for Scrooge, Rayburn said that for the first time he's playing a man older than himself. He added with a laugh, "Of course, I'm much too young for the role, but I've had this wonderful white wig made for me in California. And it's also the first time I've done something else besides comedy on the stage."
And it all came about through a telephone call. "Frank Sugrue (Charles Playhouse owner* called and asked me if I was interested, and I said sure without even reading the script. I thought it would be a marvelous stretch for me, a good challenge."
During rehearsals he's developing an English accent. "I won't do it too broadly, not like Robert Morley, but enough to suggest a British accent."
Rayburn said that the reason he was able to live much of the time on the Cape and do plays is because of the method of taping "The Match Game."
"When I commute I leave Boston on Friday and on Saturday and Sunday in Los Angeles we tape 10 shows. My next taping session will be January 9."
The show is in syndication in most of the major markets but was recently dropped from the Boston market. "We do 35 new shows a season and with 17 repeats, its on 52 weeks a year," Rayburn said.
"We always do it before a live audience, and we consider it basically a comedy show. You need an audience for that. As Fred Allen once said, You can't do a joke in a vacuum.' "
Rayburn, who grew up in Chicago, first hit New York in the 1940s with ambitions to be an actor but he ended up in radio and then on local New York television.
He became a familiar face in 1954 when he joined Steve Allen on the first of the "Tonight" shows.
After leaving "Tonight" in 1957 he appeared as guest on numerous game shows and began to act on the stage. During 1961 he replaced Dick Van Dyke for six month as the lead in the Broadway musical "Bye Bye Birdie."
His long run in "The Match Game" began in 1963 on CBS. "It was a different version than we do now, more of a straight game show, and now its more comedy," he said.
Over the years that show has been his main job, with time off for summer stock.
Asked if he wanted to go on for years with the show, Rayburn said: "Well, I'm ambivalent. I'm tired of flying and I'm used to the East. I want to live here," and then quickly changing the subject, he said: "Last week my wife and I saw Nicholas Nickelby' in New York and I think it is the greatest theatrical event of this century. And yes, I probably picked up a few things for my own Dickens show. What an incredible cast."
Rayburn said that although he was a city boy and still loves New York, one thing he cherishes about living on the Cape "is my little kitchen garden. We grow vegetables and herbs and I use seaweed for mulch."
He said that he and his wife often drive up to Boston for the theater.
"My wife Helen was an actress, and once she and I and our daughter Lynn appeared on stage together in The Impossible Years' at the Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania. But Lynn really didn't want to be an actress and now she's in graphic arts."
Rayburn said he had no hard and fast plans for the future, but it's obvious that if and when "The Match Game" fades out, he's well prepared to segue quickly to the stage as he has done at almost every opportunity in the past 25 years.