Merv Griffin; TV Host, Game-Show Creator

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 13, 2007

Merv Griffin, 82, a veteran talk-show host who created an empire of entertainment businesses, most notably as producer of the long-running game shows "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!," died Aug. 12 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He had prostate cancer.

Mr. Griffin was one of the most unlikely but enduring show-business figures of his generation. A serviceable baritone who once had a novelty recording hit with "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts," he parlayed his chatty personality and astute business sense into almost unparalleled TV success. Eventually, he leapt beyond television hosting and production to amass such holdings as casinos, hotels, radio stations and thoroughbred racehorses, making him a billionaire.

After serving as emcee of talk and quiz programs, he became a national face as host of "The Merv Griffin Show," which ended its 23-year run in 1986. The popular program, which featured celebrity interviews and performances, was never shown in reruns, which limited his reach only to those who saw it as it aired.

Merv Griffin Enterprises -- responsible for producing such shows as "Jeopardy!" (launched in 1964), "Wheel of Fortune" (1975) and the disco dance program "Dance Fever" (1979) -- proved his most influential contribution to pop culture.

"Those syndicated Merv Griffin programs have fully penetrated American culture," said Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "He was a producer who understood how those kinds of programs worked with viewers. We tend to be watching those types of shows when diapering a child or preparing a meal or preparing for the chaos of everyone coming home in the afternoon."

Mervyn Edward Griffin Jr., whose father was a stockbroker, was born July 6, 1925, in San Mateo, Calif., south of San Francisco.

He showed an aptitude for music as a child. An aunt taught him piano, and by age 10 he was playing the pipe organ and singing in churches. At 19, he abandoned college studies to enter show business. He applied for a staff pianist job at San Francisco's KFRC radio station but instead was hired as a singer for his crooning ability.

Although Mr. Griffin was popular among listeners, an embarrassing problem emerged: As he was being promoted as "America's romantic new singing star," radio audiences were unaware that he was quite chunky at the time. Management told him to hide whenever a female admirer came to the studio. He quickly shed the excess weight.

He joined Freddy Martin's big band in 1948, and with that orchestra, his bouncy recording of "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" sold 3 million copies in 1950. He appeared on Martin's musical variety TV show before breaking away for a solo career.

Doris Day saw him performing in a Las Vegas revue and recommended him to Warner Bros. studios. But in Hollywood, he said, he was miscast in such movies as "Cattle Town" (1952) and "Phantom of the Rue Morgue" (1954).

In one of the few films in which he starred, "So This Is Love" (1953), a reputed biography of opera singer Grace Moore, all the singing was left to co-star Kathryn Grayson. And despite a lingering screen kiss with Grayson, the attempt to turn him into a romantic idol failed.

He quickly decamped for a nightclub tour and won promising reviews as sharecropper Woody Mahoney in a 1955 stage production of the musical "Finian's Rainbow" at New York's City Center.

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