Game show memories: Remembering Lynne Thigpen

Lynne Thigpen portrayed the Chief, the matriarch of the PBS game show, “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” from 1991 to 1996. The portrait in the background featuring the Willis Tower is there to indicate that Thigpen hailed from Illinois.

On this day in history exactly 18 years ago, the game show world lost someone whom I consider an icon: Lynne Thigpen, the Chief and matriarch of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” and its spinoff “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?” died on March 12, 2003.

Growing up, I enjoyed watching both but in particular the former. It taught viewers geography and shared trivia from the world’s various countries and territories, while three young “gumshoes” tried to snuff out the titular ringleader and her criminal agents for a chance to be rewarded with a trip to anywhere in North America. I like to believe it was one of the shows which led me to being curious about game shows from other countries, before I discovered the British “Weakest Link” through BBC America and National Geographic channel’s “Geo Genius.”

I always found that despite her serious overtone, Thigpen proved to be a very enjoyable matronly figure. On “World,” she provided the needed “straight man” figure against the goofiness of host Greg Lee and all the chaos which was the on-screen action which provided clues for contestants throughout the first round of each show. Remember, this was a game show inspired by a computer game and set up like an old-fashioned crime-solving series. I can’t imagine it was easy for executives at WQED and WGBH to find the right man, or woman, for the role. But with Thigpen’s charisma and charm, how could they go wrong?

She brought the right energy to “World” and “Time,” delivering a sense of urgency to light the fire under gumshoes’/time pilots’ feet, while being supportive of these youngsters every step of the way. She was never rough with anyone she didn’t need to be, just toward Lee when he was going off on a tangent or if he needed to get a fresh tie.

Born in Joliet, Illinois in 1948, Thigpen originally became an English teacher while studying theatre at the University of Illinois on an acting fellowship. She moved to New York to pursue acting in 1971, soon finding her way into film in ‘Godspell’ in 1973. Among her various roles was, interestingly enough, as a journalist in “Hello Again” (1987) and as Judge Brenda Daniels in “Anger Management” (2003, posthumous release). Man, did she dig deep for her work…

For days before her death, Thigpen reported having headaches. When investigators from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office took an autopsy on her to find out what claimed her life, they discovered it was a cerebral hemorrhage.

One of her last TV roles was as Luna, the talking moon on “Bear in the Big Blue House” on Disney Playhouse. When she died, the news hit cast mates and crew hard. They never did find the strength to recast her role or resume production without her, and canceled the show afterwards.

She was nominated three times for a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a Children’s Series for her work as the Chief, but lost all three times to the late puppeteer Shari Lewis. At least she was honored with two Obies and a Tony for her acting work. In Joliet, an elementary school is named in her honor.

I only feel it right to honor a game show matriarch I feel influenced my life. I wish to thank her for helping bring calm in my often chaotic childhood. I thank her for helping me see why we need to learn geography: Not just so we don’t get lost on the way to grandma’s, but so we can understand this amazing world we live in. For that Ms. Thigpen, I salute you!

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