By the time Abbie Hoffman's image was erased from the Merv Griffin Show a decade ago because he was wearing a shirt the network said looked like an American flag, his host -- then CBS' late-night answer to Johnny Carson -- was experiencing just as real, but not quite as noticeable, an identity crisis.
Merv Griffin appeared to be at the top of his success, with his face gracing the cover of Newsweek and a prestigious, lucrative talk show contract the envy of the industry. His game show, "Jeopardy," was flourishing despite persistent complaints from NBC that the contestants "looked like Marxist radicals." Yet to hear Griffin tell it, the much-touted talk show on CBS frizzled right from its debut, his marriage had begun to fall apart and the network executives -- the "suits" -- buzzed around him continuously, like fleas at the elbow. And here he was, interviewing a black hole on the screen that sounded like Abbie Hoffman, but who could tell? And cutting to a commercial only compounded the irony: Roy Rogers, selling cars, was wearing an exact duplicate of Abbie Hoffman's red, white and blue shirt.
The unsuccessful period at CBS is the starting point for this sleek, carefully written autobiography. The era also serves as the thread that ties together anecdotes, biographical facts, background information on television production and philosophical reflections, which are then served up, talk show style, with equal parts of relevance and razmatazz.
Cleverly arranged around different periods in his life and their individual themes, Merv Griffin's autobiography displays the same smart, disarming charm that has always distinguished his show. (Griffin, as Johnny Carson has often pointed out amusingly, is big on themes.) The variations on the themes are constantly quick-witted and engaging -- so much so that the crucial midlife crisis is handled briskly and without too much self-analysis or flagellation -- and the rigid organization comes as a relief after the rambling efforts by Phil Donahue, Mike Douglas and Dick Cavett.
As the star begins to rethink his experience by visiting his childhood home, as people who write their memoirs invariably do, a very likable and ambitious persona takes shape. Born in 1925, "Buddy" Griffin first realized his show business ambitions at 14 directing a church choir during mass; and his new scores, special material, bizarre choreography, with the flamboyant, organ-thundering entrances by a delighted parish priest became the talk of the county.
This auspicious beginning brought him piano and singing dates that, in turn, brought him fame on the radio. The radio quickly became a comfortable cushion for the young singer whose weight had zoomed in the interim to 240 pounds. But he inevitably had to deal with the escalating corpulence when fans, who had only heard him on the air, burst out laughing on meeting the voice in the flesh. He slimmed down and toured with Freddie Martin's band, where he popularized the 3-million-selling record hit, "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts." An undistinguished movie career followed ("So This Is Love," "The Boy From Oklahoma," "The Phantom of Rue Morgue.") He married Julann Wright, a deft young comedienne with waist-long red hair and a fondness for brewing her own bathtub beer. They broke into television, but she soon left to care for their son, Tony. Griffin went on to game shows, then subsituted for Jack Paar, and finally hosted a series of network and syndicated talk shows.
Throughout, just the right amount of Celebrity salt is tossed in to nip at the palate: dating a young Elizabeth Taylor, who seemed more interested in Lindy's cheesecake than Griffin's charms; visiting with Tallulah Bankhead as she sat on the commode; singing to a convention of deaf people at the Strand Theater on Broadway; introducing Joe McGinniss ("The Selling of the President") to the Nixon people while the candidate prepared TV commercials for the 1968 campaign; being punched in the stomach by Broadway diva Helen Gallagher during a performance of "Finian's Rainbow"; pushing a lemon meringue pie into Montgomery Clift's face; bringing 20-year-old Barbra Streisand to the White House, where she received from President Kennedy what can only be described here as a deliciously unprintable autograph.
Although there are often witty and revealing nuggets, one wishes the gold mines had been further explored. But the cautious tone is a mixed blessing. On the positive side, there is a discussion of his marital breakup, which leaves the reader neither perplexed about the reasons for the divorce, nor does it have us, like some recent indiscreet show-biz biographies (the best-selling "Shelley" comes to mind), reaching for the smelling salts.
On the negative side, potentially fascinating subjects such as the unpleasantness between Griffin and the network bigwigs are not developed. But this is a very friendly book, polite dinner chat that never really slips into rudeness. Only occasionally does a light touch elude our star, as when he includes transcripts of TV conversations with Spiro Agnew and Bertrand Russell. These party poopers butt into the fun like unwelcome in-laws, and mulling through all that willfulness is like being made to eat your vegetables. Merv Griffin should not have to convince anyone he is a serious person.