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.
While maintaining an active recording schedule, he made numerous guest appearances on radio and television. He later told the Miami Herald that he was a "utility singer," adding: "I knew every song that was ever written. If somebody in a show got sick and couldn't do their number singing in front of a waterfall, everybody would say, 'Call Merv -- he knows all the waterfall songs.' " After a reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune found him "a glib, likable, singing emcee type," he won a job in 1958 doing just that, on the quiz show "Play Your Hunch." The show ran several years.
Mr. Griffin also managed to emcee "Saturday Prom," a short-lived NBC rival to Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" dance program, and was a replacement host for other programs.
After host Jack Paar left NBC's "The Tonight Show" in 1962, Mr. Griffin served in his place for several weeks until Johnny Carson took over. As a reward, the network gave Mr. Griffin his first self-titled chat show, a daytime program that lasted just a year because of low ratings.
In 1965, he accepted an offer from the Westinghouse Broadcasting Co. to host the syndicated "Merv Griffin Show" with Arthur Treacher, an English actor known for playing movie butlers, as his sidekick.
Mr. Griffin highlighted theater and cafe performers over Hollywood actors. He also brought on cellist Pablo Casals and Soviet diplomat Nikolai Fedorenko.
Mr. Griffin was not regarded as a tough or penetrating interviewer. Such terms as ingratiating and inoffensive were more often used to describe his style. Yet he periodically stepped into controversy during the rise of the counterculture era and the Vietnam War by inviting such guests as Bertrand Russell, the Nobel laureate, philosopher and anti-nuclear activist, who denounced the war.
Mr. Griffin also interviewed activist Abbie Hoffman -- whose American-flag shirt was deemed offensive by CBS censors and was blurred.
Mr. Griffin's show was briefly on CBS, which tried to pit him against Carson unsuccessfully on a late-night schedule.
Ever since his first talk show was scuttled, Mr. Griffin was quick to recognize that he would not always be a viable on-camera personality. This led to his increasing role as a producer of game shows. Mr. Griffin told the Miami Herald last year: " 'Jeopardy!' came after the big quiz show scandals of the 1950s. I wanted to get a game show on the air, but the networks wouldn't touch them. My wife said, 'Why don't you do a show where you give the contestants the answers?' . . . So there it was -- 'Jeopardy!' -- we give you the answer and you come up with the question."
He added that "Wheel of Fortune" was a variation of the child's game hangman, in which people have to guess letters to form a phrase. "Dance Fever" grew from a segment on disco he highlighted on his talk show. Although he said he hated the music, he recognized its audience appeal.
In 1986, Mr. Griffin sold Merv Griffin Enterprises to Coca-Cola's Columbia Pictures television unit for $250 million, and he negotiated a deal to allow him to retain some profits while maintaining the title of executive producer of "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" He was said to still contribute puzzles and other ideas for his game shows.
He received a Lifetime Achievement Daytime Emmy Award in 2005.
Mr. Griffin enjoyed a social life that ranged from Hollywood parties to San Francisco's Bohemian Club, a men's group whose other members have included former president George H.W. Bush, investment firm founder Charles Schwab and television news anchor Walter Cronkite. Mr. Griffin also became a major backer of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
He also had become involved in real estate investments. He bought the Beverly Hilton Hotel in 1987 for $100.2 million after losing his first choice, the Beverly Hills Hotel, to the Sultan of Brunei. The next year, he paid $365 million to Donald Trump for the Resorts International casino company in Atlantic City before the hotel's enormous debt almost led him to file for bankruptcy; he later sold the casino.
His holdings also included radio stations and closed-circuit TV systems at dozens of racetracks nationwide. He also bred racehorses and had a winery at his ranch in California's Monterey Peninsula.
His marriage to Julann Wright Griffin ended in divorce in the mid-1970s. Survivors include a son, Anthony P. Griffin, and two grandchildren.
Merv Griffin, long the escort of "Green Acres" actress Eva Gabor, refrained from discussing his personal relationships in any detail -- even in two autobiographies. In the early 1990s, he was sued for $200 million by a former male employee, Brent Plott, on palimony charges, and for $11.5 million by former "Dance Fever" host Deney Terrio for sexual harassment. Both cases were dismissed.
Mr. Griffin remained wry and jovial until recent years, at times joking about the lawsuits.
He told the New York Times in 2005 that although death was inevitable, he was happy for the time being. "I've got great energy, and I've got all of my hair," he said before suggesting an appropriate tombstone epitaph: "I will not be right back after these messages."