Grizzly Adams on a skateboard: A brief history of 1977's 'Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes'
Farrah Fawcett whipped Bill Cosby at tennis in CBS's reality TV extravagaza.
At some point in early 1977, an executive at CBS woke up with a question burning in his mind: "Can Farrah Fawcett-Majors beat Bill Cosby in tennis?" At least, that's what a network promotional clip asked on April 17, 1977. This was just one of a dozen events comprising the debut Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes. It would be the first of five specials that pitted television stars in various athletic battles to determine the "the better sex."
A large piece of particle board was propped up against a tree in the middle of a Southern California highway. Someone had spray painted on the wood in all-caps: "SORRY FARRAH SOLD OUT." Every single ticket for the tennis match between Fawcett and Cosby was snatched up. While the venue may have been packed, viewers at home were not as keen to watch on a lazy Sunday. Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes was hardly a ratings juggernaut.
The special was essentially a mash-up of CBS's 1976 game show Challenge of the Sexes, which cast everyday people, and ABC's popular Battle of the Network Stars. In fact, Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes featured two men involved in the most memorable moment of the original Battle of the Network Stars. Gabe Kaplan and Robert Conrad sprinted around a track against each other, after the eagle-eyed Telly Savalas challenged a baton pass in the relay race. Suddenly, Kaplan and Conrad found themselves on the same team, representing men as a whole. Or at least celebrity men.
Here is the full event card from the premiere Celebrity Challenge:
Tennis: Bill Cosby (I Spy) vs. Farah Fawcett (Charlie's Angels)
Billiards: Redd Foxx (Sanford & Son) vs. Roz Kelly (Pinky Tuscadero of Happy Days)
Basketball: Elliott Gould (star of the MASH film and frequent SNL host) vs. Brenda Vaccaro (Sara)
Bowling: Gabe Kaplan (Welcome Back, Kotter) vs. Susan Howard (Petrocelli)
Swimming: Stefanie Powers (The Feather and Father Gang) vs. Tony Randall (The Odd Couple)
Marathon Run: Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) vs. Lola Falana (disco singer with her own The Lola Falana Show)
Bicycle Racing: Lloyd Bridges (Joe Forrester) vs. Cindy Williams (Laverne & Shirley)
Obstacle Course: Robert Conrad (The Wild Wild West) vs. Penny Marshall (Laverne & Shirley)
Ping Pong: Phyllis George (sportscaster from The NFL Today) vs. O.J. Simpson
Go-Karts: Connie Stevens (Hawaiian Eye) vs. Flip Wilson (The Flip Wilson Show)
Golf: Kathy Crosby (wife of Bing) vs. MacLean Stevenson (M*A*S*H)
Skateboarding: Dan Haggerty (Grizzly Adams) vs. Kristy McNichol (Family)
Ed Asner running a marathon! Tony Randall swimming! Pinky Tuscadero shooting pool! Now this was 1970 television.
Naturally, the young Kristy McNichol whipped Dan Haggerty atop a skinny plastic skateboard, sweeping him in four out of four races. The 43-year-old Crosby, not to be confused with onetime Wonder Woman Cathy Lee Crosby, in a one-hole golf challenge on a course in Mission Viejo, California. Slicing and hooking her shots, Crosby made par. MacLean Stevenson smacked a drive right off the tee that landed two feet from the hole, to tap in a birdie.
Ed Asner, who was in suprisingly good shape, nevertheless lost his jog against Lola Falana.
Of course, two of the famous men involved have since been disgraced into infamy. Their names stick out like gangsters in a crowd of Girl Scouts. So just how did O.J. Simpson and Bill Cosby fare, you ask? Simpson decided to play his table tennis match left handed, in an act of hubris or condescending charity or both, and lost to Phyllis George.
Meanwhile, when Farrah arrived at the tennis court, it was pandemonium. Fifty photographers awaited her limousine arrival. "The roar from the crowd was like long ago when Hitler arrived at a stadium," columnist Maggie Daly rather inappropriately wrote in The Chicago Tribune. The pin-up beauty beat Cosby on the court. So at least that question was answered.