WASHINGTON — Mac McGarry, the avuncular TV quizmaster of “It’s Academic” who spent a half-century pitching local teenage contestants hundreds of thousands of fastball trivia questions about topics as diverse as Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Chubby Checker and the chemical makeup of paint, died Dec. 12 at his home in Potomac, Md. He was 87.
The cause was pneumonia, said his son Mark McGarry.
With an easy-going baritone that sounded like a throwback to the days of fedoras and big bands, McGarry thrived well into the Internet age. As host of “It’s Academic,” which launched in 1961 and became the longest-running quiz program in TV history, he liked to describe himself as the area’s most inquisitive man.
A Washington radio and TV personality, he carved a multifaceted career spanning six decades. He covered presidential inaugurations and the start of the Korean War. He also hosted a big-band radio show, was an early TV sparring partner of Willard Scott and appeared with a young Jim Henson and his Muppets.
But it was as the bespectacled face of “It’s Academic” that McGarry became a Saturday staple for generations of Washington brainiacs who competed for scholarship money and intellectual glory.
So earnestly does the weekly program take academic achievement that cheerleaders and marching bands became part of the show’s backdrop, rooting on their school’s teams.
McGarry, a graduate of academically rigorous Jesuit schools in New York, was the show’s first host. He said he believed in the show’s mission to “put these kids out front, where they belong.”
The show’s creator, the late Sophie Altman, started “It’s Academic” on Washington’s NBC affiliate, WRC (Channel 4). She later brought the same format, sometimes under different names, to more than a dozen markets nationwide.
Former contestants in Washington and elsewhere include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (chosen as an alternate for her Illinois high school), former Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald Graham, political commentator George Stephanopoulos, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon.
Actress Sandra Bullock, who attended high school in Arlington, Va., appeared as a cheerleader.
In addition to his hosting duties in Washington, McGarry emceed the educational quiz show on NBC’s Baltimore affiliate from 1973 to 2000.
McGarry prepared vigorously for the show by researching pronunciations. He once spent an hour on the phone with the Russian Embassy until he could say a Russian word properly.
On the show, he read questions from cue cards and decided whether teams won or lost points. Three teams of three students from dozens of local high schools competed against each other and the clock.
Typical questions included: “What mythological figure has the whole world on his shoulders?” Answer: “Atlas.”
“If you had been a voter in the 1896 and 1900 presidential elections, your choice of candidates would have been limited to men with what same first name?” Answer: “William,” for McKinley and Bryan.
McGarry once said the most popular profession for former teammates is law, although one contestant became a shepherd.
At times, McGarry told The Washington Post in 1985, the show has served as a “reflection of the way our country was.”
He noted, for example, that the turmoil of the late 1960s produced one young male contestant who said his plans for the future centered on consuming a great deal of marijuana. He said the show’s producers, to their credit, left it in.
McGarry was, for the most part, unflappable in the face of teenage unpredictability.
But he lost his usual composure when a student was once asked who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
“Duke Ellington,” the contestant replied.
The noble rank was right, but the American jazz bandleader had little else in common with the Duke of Wellington.
“I tried not to laugh, but I had to hang my head on the rostrum,” McGarry said.