By Ula Ilnytzky and Sandy Cohen
NEW YORK — Before Dr. Phil and Dr. Drew and Dr. Oz, there was Joyce Brothers.
The popular psychologist, who died Monday, pioneered the television advice show in the 1950s, opening the airwaves to discussions of love, marriage and parenting, as well as such taboo subjects as menopause, frigidity, impotence and sexual enjoyment. She went on to become an author, syndicated advice columnist and TV and film personality, setting the stage for today’s one-named TV doctors.
Her daughter, Lisa Brothers Arbisser, an ophthalmologist in the Quad Cities of Iowa, said she died of respiratory failure at her home in Fort Lee, N.J. She was 85.
Phil McGraw called Brothers “a pioneer in the field of mental health.”
“Decades before I came along, Dr. Joyce was able to get people talking about their emotional issues and problems. In her own gentle and caring way she let people know it was OK to discuss their feelings and emotions,” he said. “She had a great sense of humor and gave very sound advice in her column and whenever she appeared on TV. I owe her a great deal for what she did for the mental health profession and society owes her a big thank you.”
Brothers first gained fame on the game show “The $64,000 Question” and said her multimedia career came about “because we were hungry.”
It was 1955. Her husband, Milton Brothers, was still in medical school and Brothers had just given up her teaching positions at Hunter College and Columbia University to be home with her newborn, firmly believing a child’s development depended on it.
But the young family found itself struggling on her husband’s residency income. So Brothers came up with the idea of entering a television game show as a contestant.
“The $64,000 Question” quizzed contestants in their chosen area of expertise. She memorized 20 volumes of a boxing encyclopedia — and, with that as her subject, became the only woman and the second person to ever win the show’s top prize.
Brothers tried her luck again on the superseding “$64,000 Challenge,” answering each question correctly and earning the dubious distinction as one of the biggest winners in the history of television quiz shows. She later denied any knowledge of cheating, and during a 1959 hearing in the quiz show scandal, a producer exonerated her of involvement.
Her celebrity opened up doors. In 1956, she became co-host of “Sports Showcast” and frequently appeared on talk shows.
Two years later, NBC offered her a trial on an afternoon television program in which she advised on love, marriage, sex and child-rearing. Its success led to a nationally telecast program, and subsequent late-night shows that addressed even racier topics.
She also dispensed advice on several phone-in radio programs, sometimes going live. She was criticized by some for giving out advice without knowing her callers’ histories. But Brothers responded that she was not practicing therapy on the air and that she advised callers to seek professional help when needed.
Despite criticism of the format, the call-in show took off, and by 1985, the Association of Media Psychologists was created to monitor for abuses.
Dr. Drew Pinsky, who has offered his medical expertise in radio and television formats first pioneered by Brothers, saluted her impact on the industry.
“Knew nothing about her history on the $64,000 question, but I did know Joyce Brothers,” he wrote on Twitter. “She was a pioneer and very knowledgable.”
Other celebrities, including Paris Hilton, rapper Common and motivational guru Tony Robbins, posted bits of Brothers’ advice on Twitter, such as: “The best proof of love is trust.”
For almost four decades, Brothers was a columnist for Good Housekeeping. She also wrote a daily syndicated advice column that appeared in more than 350 newspapers. Briefly, in 1961, she was host of her own television program.
Later, Brothers branched out into film, playing herself in more than a dozen movies, including “Analyze That” (2002), “Beethoven’s 4th” (2001), “Lover’s Knot” (1996) and “Dear God” (1996).
She was also an advocate for women. In the 1970s, Brothers called for changing textbooks to remove sexist bias, noting that nonsexist cultures tend to be less warlike.
The quiz show scandal of 1958-59 was one of the biggest scandals in the history of television. It erupted in 1958 when it was revealed that quiz show producers had been rigging the outcome of some shows, including “The $64,000 Question,” by giving favored contestants the answers in advance.
Brothers was one of a number of big winners who told an Associated Press survey in November 1959 that they knew nothing of any cheating.
At a House hearing that month, associate producer Mort Koplin also said Brothers was among those not involved in cheating. But he also described how contestants, who were carefully interviewed in advance, could be affected unknowingly as producers tried to manipulate the outcome of shows by tailoring questions to benefit favored ones and oust less-favored ones.
According to the testimony, Brothers applied to be a “64,000 Question” contestant as an expert in home economics and psychology. The producers, looking for an audience-pleasing oddity, suggested the pretty young woman try boxing as her specialty. She learned the subject so well, Koplin said, she kept on winning even after the producers “threw the book” at her with tough questions aimed at eliminating her.
Born Joyce Diane Bauer in New York, Brothers earned her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and a Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia.
She wrote numerous advice books, including “Ten Days To A Successful Memory” (1964), “Positive Plus: The Practical Plan for Liking Yourself Better” (1995) and “Widowed” (1992), a guide to dealing with grief written after the death of her husband in 1990.
Brothers is survived by sister Elaine Goldsmith, daughter Arbisser, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
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