TV impresario of talk and game shows dies at 82

The Baltimore Sun

Merv Griffin, whose prolific show business career included singing on radio during the big-band era and creating two of television's most enduring game shows, died yesterday at age 82 in Los Angeles. The cause of death was prostate cancer, according to a statement from his family that was released by Marcia Newberger, spokeswoman for The Griffin Group/Merv Griffin Entertainment.

While widely known as host of a long-running TV talk show, his greatest contribution to television came as creator of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, the two most popular and financially successful game shows in the medium's history. Jeopardy also proved that a TV game show could even be an intellectual pursuit - and pleasure.

"Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy are what he will be remembered for, and rightly so," said Douglas Gomery, scholar in residence at the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland, College Park. "But he also had a substantial run as a pop-culture persona - he certainly seemed to be on screen and in the public eye in one form or another from the earliest days of television."

Winner of 17 Emmys, host of a TV talk show that ran for 23 years, and ultimately one of Hollywood's richest impresarios with a production company that sold for $250 million in 1986, Mr. Griffin was called "Merv of all trades" by his show-business friend, CNN talk-show host Larry King.

While his talents ran wide, they did not run especially deep. But few performers of such modest gifts have ever climbed as far up the Hollywood ladder - and none stayed at the top as long as Mr. Griffin.

Born Mervyn Edward Griffin Jr., July 6, 1925, in San Mateo, Calif., the stockbroker's son began taking classical music lessons before he started elementary school. By the ninth grade, his repertoire included the hymns he sang in a church choir and the popular songs of the day that he heard on the radio.

In 1945, at the age of 19, the graduate of San Mateo High School turned professional, landing a job in radio singing on San Francisco Sketchbook, a program produced at station KFRC-AM and syndicated coast to coast.

Showing early flashes of the business acumen that would define his career, the young singer managed to get the program instantly renamed The Merv Griffin Show, and to record an album, Songs by Merv Griffin, within a year. The LP was produced by Panda Records, which Mr. Griffin founded months after his radio debut.

In 1948, Mr. Griffin left the radio show to join the Freddy Martin band, one of the most popular of the era, as its singer, and two years later he recorded the song, "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts," which he delivered in a mock-Cockney accent. The high-spirited, silly tune captured the ebullience of post-World War II America and soared to No. 1 on Your Hit Parade, selling 3 million copies.

Much like another young big-band singer of the era, Frank Sinatra, Mr. Griffin was offered film, stage and TV roles as result of his singing success. In 1952, he landed a film contract with Warner Bros., appearing a year later in So This Is Love with Kathryn Grayson. But Mr. Griffin was not happy working in films, and in 1954, he bought his contract back from the studio.

"I couldn't stand doing other people's words, waiting for the next shot," he said.

Besides, he had offers waiting in the rapidly expanding world of 1950s TV - a medium to which he would prove much better suited.

Mr. Griffin started modestly on a CBS Sunday morning religious program, Look Up and Live, but he quickly became a regular as a singer on the network's weekday Morning Show. He also appeared as a recurring guest on The Jack Paar Show, a variety program that aired in prime time on CBS in 1954.

After Mr. Paar moved to late nights on NBC in 1957 as host of what would become The Tonight Show, Mr. Griffin was often invited to serve as substitute host - and there he honed his knack for easygoing banter and developed his persona as an amiable emcee.

Mr. Griffin's gift for gab brought him to the attention of game show moguls Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, who recruited him as host of Play Your Hunch, a prime-time game show on CBS that ran from 1960 to 1962.

The self-described "puzzle freak" took to the genre so well that in 1964 he created his own TV game show in which the contestants are challenged to come up with the questions instead of the answers - Jeopardy.

"Jeopardy is the one game show that even people who say that they hate television will admit in private to watching - and enjoying tremendously," said Mr. Gomery, a professor of media history and economics at Maryland. "People talk about host Alex Trebek as a phenomenon, but Griffin was the puppet master behind the curtain."

He would move back and forth between the talk and game show formats the rest of his career.

In the wake of a ratings surge following an extended run as Mr. Paar's fill-in during the summer of 1962, NBC created The Merv Griffin Show for daytime TV. Though that production lasted only one season, it became the template for various versions that would run for 23 years in syndication and on network TV.

One of his most notable show-business failures came with a late-night talk show on CBS in 1969 when the network put him up against Johnny Carson, then in his seventh season as host of NBC's The Tonight Show.

Trying to be in sync with the tumultuous times, Mr. Griffin featured controversial guests such as Vietnam War protester Abbie Hoffman. The schmoozy game-show host never found his footing in the more competitive world of late-night network television and regularly finished a distant third in the ratings behind Mr. Carson and Dick Cavett on ABC.

But Mr. Griffin was far more successful in daytime syndication, and by the time he ended his talk show career in 1986, he estimated that he had emceed 5,500 episodes and interviewed 25,000 guests.

On the game-show side, in 1975, he created Wheel of Fortune - the second-most successful game show in TV history, behind Jeopardy. The theme songs for both shows are also his works.

And he was still at it this year, with the creation of Merv Griffin's Crosswords, a new syndicated game show set to debut Sept. 10 on NBC-owned and -operated stations in New York, Los Angeles and several other large cities.

Along the way, the Beverly Hills businessman bought and sold the Beverly Hills Hilton, as well as 17 radio stations, six casinos and 22 hotels. In 1986, when he sold his production company, Forbes magazine named him the richest performer in Hollywood history.

A friend of President Ronald Reagan and wife, Nancy for more than 50 years, Mr. Griffin was a frequent guest at the White House during the 1980s.

In a statement yesterday, Mrs. Reagan said, "Merv meant the world to me. I will miss him - and his brilliant smile, his wonderful voice, and the twinkle in his eyes - every day for the rest of my life."

First diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1996, the entertainment mogul was hospitalized last month in Los Angeles when a recurrence was discovered during a routine examination.

Always a careful custodian of his public image, Mr. Griffin issued a press statement at that time saying, "I'd rather play Jeopardy than live it. I was ready for a vacation; however, this wasn't the destination I had in mind."

His son, Tony, an executive with Merv Griffin Entertainment, and two grandchildren survive him. He was married in 1958 to Julann Elizabeth Wright, and they divorced in 1976.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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