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Entertainer Mike Douglas, 81; Hosted Daytime TV Talk Show

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 12, 2006

Mike Douglas, a modest Midwesterner whose daytime TV talk show, with its mix of music, comedy and conversation, drew large audiences during the 1960s and 1970s, died Aug. 11 in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., on his 81st birthday.

His wife, Genevieve Douglas, told the Associated Press that he had been admitted to the hospital the day before. She said that she wasn't sure of the cause of death but that he had become dehydrated while playing golf a few weeks earlier and had received treatment.

"The Mike Douglas Show" was a reflection of the host's sunny nature. An occasional guest might have been edgy and outspoken, but Mr. Douglas was not. Unfailingly polite and affable, he was as easygoing as the easy-listening ballads he sang to open the show.

The show had its memorable moments, including the time boxing king Muhammad Ali handed him the phone to talk to the King himself, Elvis Presley. Or when Ray Charles rode onto the set astride a motorcycle. Or when an ailing Judy Garland, shortly before her death, sang "Over the Rainbow" one last time.

Occasionally, Mr. Douglas invited a celebrity to co-host for a week. In 1972, the Beatles' John Lennon and wife Yoko Ono spent a week with him; their invited guests included Black Panther activist Bobby Seale, Yippie antiwar radical Jerry Rubin, consumer activist Ralph Nader and an outspoken young comedian named George Carlin.

Although the show drew hefty ratings that week, Mr. Douglas said in his memoir that he was anxious the whole time. He called Ono "strident" and told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1999, "Another week and Yoko wouldn't be just responsible for breaking up the Beatles, she'd break up 'the Mike Douglas Show' too."

He was more comfortable with shows such as the one in 1978, when a 2-year-old golfing prodigy named Tiger Woods showed off his swing. Comedian Bob Hope was on the same show. "I don't know what kind of drugs they've got this kid on," he quipped, "but I want some."

His 30,000-plus guests included Mother Teresa, Malcolm X and seven presidents. In 1962, he introduced a 20-year-old singer named Barbra Streisand.

"My intention right from the beginning was to always make a guest look good," he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1999. "I never wanted to belittle a guest or talk down to one."

"The Mike Douglas Show" aired from 1961 to 1982, a total of some 6,000 syndicated shows, most of them 90 minutes long. It ran on as many as 230 stations nationwide and won five Emmys.

The show's producer was Roger Ailes, who became Fox News chairman and chief executive. In a statement released yesterday, Ailes described Mr. Douglas as "one of the great television performers of the 20th century whose versatility is unmatched in today's entertainment world."

Mike Douglas was born Michael Delaney Dowd Jr. in Chicago. He began a professional singing career at 15, earning free room and board and $35 a week for singing pop tunes on a cruise ship plying Lake Erie between Cleveland and Buffalo. He was the staff singer at radio station WKY in Oklahoma City before joining the Navy during World War II.

After the war, he returned to Cleveland and became a performer on "Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge," a radio show and eventual TV show. It was Kyser who gave the young singer his new name when, without warning, he introduced him one night as Mike Douglas. When Kyser retired in 1950, Mr. Douglas began a solo singing career. That year, Walt Disney heard his smooth baritone voice and cast him as the voice of Prince Charming in the animated fairytale classic "Cinderella."

Although he had recorded several hits with Kyser a few years earlier, including "Old Lamplighter," "Coffee Time" and "Ol' Buttermilk Sky," the rock-and-roll tidal wave of the 1950s swept his easy-listening style off the charts. He reinvented himself as the host of a radio talk show in Chicago called "Hi Ladies" and also hosted a radio bingo show.

Mr. Douglas was offered a show at a Cleveland TV station in 1961. A hit from the beginning, the show relocated to Philadelphia in 1965 and then to Burbank, Calif., in 1978. It aired live until 1965, when an off-color comment by actress Zsa Zsa Gabor prompted producers to tape the show before it was broadcast.

Ratings began to decline in the late 1970s, and the show's owner, Westinghouse Group W Broadcasting, decided it needed to woo younger viewers. In 1980, Mr. Douglas was replaced by a youthful-looking singer named John Davidson. Mr. Douglas moved his show to the fledgling CNN cable network and then retired to Florida two years later. He played golf, spent time with children and grandchildren in Cleveland and gave motivational speeches.

"He was a genuine nice guy," longtime friend Larry King said on CNN yesterday. "It was easy to be around him. He had a relaxed measure about him, and he also had an incredible ability to get great guests."

In addition to his wife of 61 years, of Palm Beach Gardens, survivors include three daughters, Kelly Douglas, Michele Douglas and Christine Douglas; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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