The Host Who Was Everyone's Guest

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 13, 2007

Merv Griffin had friends in the right places, and for the 20 years that "The Merv Griffin Show" aired on television, in one form or another, those places included millions of American homes.

He was fun to have around, and so the news of his death yesterday, at 82, was poignantly dispiriting. Especially considering he was that form of celebrity unique to television: a professional personality, someone whose singing (despite a big-band career in the '40s) was unexceptional, whose dancing was limited to ballrooms at haute blowouts, and whose major talent may have been his prowess at dealmaking behind the scenes.

Though members of post-boomer generations may seldom or never have seen Griffin perform -- impishly interrogating the famous and infamous who joined him on his talk show -- they may still be aware of his presence in pop culture. Nearly everyone knows he invented the game shows "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune" and hugely profited from them, while continuing to gambol and scamper across the pop landscape as gadfly and entrepreneur.

He never seemed the type to avoid paparazzi or scorn whatever slivers of limelight were still accessible, and he obviously got an infectious kick out of playing the role of himself. However one knew him, whether vicariously or personally, just the mention of "Merv" (recognizably a one-namer like Oprah or Cher) was likely to provoke a smile, partly because he had the ability, still rare in any business, to laugh at himself.

His death was not precisely a shock, as his battle with prostate cancer had been in the news columns for weeks, but his departure decreases the amount of merriment in the world. Though his public appearances were relatively infrequent in recent years, whenever he popped up, Griffin displayed the bouncing boyishness that was a trademark all along, back at least to 1949 when he faked a British accent to sing the nonsense novelty song "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" with Freddie Martin and his dance band.

He'd sing occasionally on his talk show, too, but the program -- at first a network venture and later syndicated by Westinghouse -- was primarily a vehicle for Merv to hobnob with guests far more eclectic in their variety than on mainstream talk shows today. The host hunkered down not only with actors and comics but with politicians, philosophers, rock icons and such revered public figures as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

His friendship with Ronald and Nancy Reagan earned Griffin unusual access in the '80s; he taped a lengthy interview with the president and first lady in their private quarters on the second floor of the White House only a few months after the assassination attempt that nearly took Reagan's life. In 1967, Griffin landed a less popular Republican, Richard Nixon, and had the admirable temerity to ask Nixon how it felt to be thought of as "a loser" in American life.

That and other arguably priceless moments were collected in a four-DVD collection called "The Merv Griffin Show: 40 of the Most Interesting People of Our Time," released early last year, though to relatively little notice. In segments that had aired from the '60s through the '80s, Griffin talked with everyone from John Wayne to Richard Pryor, Jerry Seinfeld to Roy Rogers, Walter Cronkite to Donald Duck -- or rather Clarence "Ducky" Nash, Donald's voice in dozens of Disney cartoons.

Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington and others sat down with Griffin just as their careers were taking off, while at the other end of the scale, he conducted what is believed to be the last interview with Orson Welles, until then a fairly frequent visitor to Merv's modest set. That set -- or at least one of many variations on it used over the years -- turned up on an episode of "Seinfeld" during its final season, proving that Merv was still in the public consciousness even though his talk show had long since folded.

In the show's earliest days, when it could afford not only Mort Lindsey and his orchestra but a staff announcer as well, the latter role was filled by aged character actor Arthur Treacher, previously famous for playing butlers and other servants, including P.G. Wodehouse's immortal Jeeves, in the movies; in "The Little Princess," he danced and sang disarmingly with Shirley Temple. Off-camera, as the show began, Treacher would read the list of that evening's guests, bringing Griffin on with "And now, the dear boy himself."

As he grew increasingly crotchety over the years, however, Treacher was more likely to refer to Griffin, at least in interviews, as "that wretched little man," and the joke began to curdle. Griffin solved the problem and saved money by doing the announcing himself and thus heralding his own arrival onstage with "and now -- here I come!"

His wide range of guests, although an asset to the show, became one of the traits for which he was satirized. During Griffin's heyday, such as it was, when he was on opposite late-night king Johnny Carson, Carson would often make a sarcastic reference in his monologue to the effect that "Merv is doing another of his fascinating 'theme shows' tonight." While Griffin never posed a significant threat to Carson's dominance -- nor did anyone else -- he had been a leading candidate for the job of "Tonight Show" host when it was announced in 1962 that Jack Paar was leaving the program after a comparatively brief five-year run.

Griffin was widely considered Paar's heir apparent, in fact, having substituted for Paar during many of the explosive star's vacations and nights off. NBC went with the funnier but less controversial Carson and the rest is television, and cultural, history. Since Griffin eventually owned his own program, and then built a mini-empire around "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune," his wealth was vast, and he was neither to be pitied nor censored.

Canada's SCTV comedy troupe, imported via syndication and, briefly, a late-night run on NBC, did even more lampooning of Griffin than Carson did, with cast member Rick Moranis (later to star in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" and other Disney family comedies) doing a wickedly funny impersonation -- always brandishing a breathless enthusiasm and, like the real Griffin, leaning so far into his guest's space (presumably to encourage candor) that he looked as though he might nap in their laps.

Moranis's Merv would suddenly interrupt whatever conversation happened to be taking place to hurriedly utter what was basically Merv's mantra at the time: "We'll be right back."

As an aspiring young actor who'd been discovered, and recommended to Warner Bros., by Doris Day, Griffin popped up in such unlikely films as "Phantom of the Rue Morgue" rather than in cheerful musicals. Like Paar who had been discovered while at RKO, Griffin realized his future in show business was not as an actor. Television made him a star and, later, real estate and stock deals made him rich. But Griffin, who once tried to make a TV version of "Monopoly" fly (it crashed), found playing Monopoly in real life too boring, he said, and he concentrated exclusively on show business.

In his public appearances and remarks, Griffin often appeared to view his life -- his success and his occasional setbacks -- as a great big game, so it's appropriate that many know his name only because he is still credited as the creator of "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" The wheel of fortune proved kind to Merv, there seemed relatively little jeopardy in his life, and if he left with any regrets, the major one was probably that the game couldn't go on forever. Clearly, he was still eager to play.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company