Richard Dawson, the British-born host of “Family Feud” whose quick-witted repartee with contestants and generous kisses for the ladies helped make his program one of the most popular game shows in television history, died June 2 at a hospital in Los Angeles.
He was 79 and had complications from esophageal cancer, said his son Gary Dawson.
The original “Family Feud” debuted in 1976 with Mr. Dawson as its star and quickly became one of the most-watched programs on television. It had a simple and appealing formula: Dueling families were invited to guess the most common answers to survey questions about the tastiest cookie, the best-looking actor and other such minutiae.
The show’s popularity regularly eclipsed that of soap operas, another sort of family feud. At the height of its success, “Family Feud” aired five times a week during the day and six times a week in the evening and had more than 40 million total viewers. Mr. Dawson received an Emmy for best game show host in 1978.
Most Americans first knew him not for his “Family Feud” incarnation, but as Royal Air Force Cpl. Peter Newkirk on “Hogan’s Heroes,” the classic 1960s sit-com set in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. In that era, many game shows featured actors and other celebrity contestants to boost their entertainment value. Mr. Dawson — a self-taught polymath who left high school to be a laundry boy in the British merchant marine — proved not only a good sport, but a brilliant player.
During and after his run on “Hogan’s Heroes,” he became a mainstay of game shows such as “Password” and “Match Game” and accumulated “years of magical game playing,” Fred Wostbrock, co-author of “The Encyclopedia of TV Game Shows,” said in an interview. Mark Goodson, an executive at the game-show production company Goodson-Todman, pulled Mr. Dawson from “Match Game” and installed him as the host of “Family Feud.”
“The chief reason for the show’s success,” television critic Tom Shales wrote in The Washington Post in 1978, “is host Dawson — the fastest, brightest and most beguilingly caustic interlocutor since the late great Groucho bantered and parried on ‘You Bet Your Life.’ ”
For his practice of kissing female contestants, the tabloid Weekly World News once described Mr. Dawson as having the “kissing-est lips on TV.” Male contestants sometimes received different treatment. Once Mr. Dawson referred to a contestant’s suit and inquired, “Nine polyesters died to make this?”
He used the bully pulpit of his game show to criticize Henry Kissinger about the Vietnam War and to make cracks about President Richard M. Nixon. Television executives tried to rein in his behavior but backed down when he threatened to quit. In his heyday, he was so popular that he was considered as a replacement for Johnny Carson when Carson briefly considered retiring from “The Tonight Show” in the late 1970s.
But Mr. Dawson’s original audiences grew older, and as audiences’ taste evolved, interest in game shows declined. The original “Family Feud” ended in 1985 but later returned in different forms; today Steve Harvey is the host. For one season in the early 1990s, Mr. Dawson hosted “The New Family Feud.”
Mr. Dawson also appeared with Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Running Man” (1987), a futuristic film that featured a villainous game-show host.
Colin Lionel Emm was born Nov. 20, 1932, in Gosport, England. According to his son, he changed his name as a young stand-up comic in London. Arriving at a gig, he was told that he would follow a comic named Dickie Dawson. When Dickie didn’t show, the organizers of the event sent Colin Emm on stage in his stead. The name stuck.
Carl Reiner saw Mr. Dawson in a comedy club and invited him to appear in an episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Mr. Dawson was chosen for “Hogan’s Heroes” in part because of his performance in the World War II film “King Rat” (1965).
In the late 1950s, Mr. Dawson met and married Diana Dors, an English actress known as the British Marilyn Monroe. Their marriage ended in divorce. Mr. Dawson met his second wife, the former Gretchen Johnson, when she was a contestant on “Family Feud.” They married in 1991, not long after Mr. Dawson became an American citizen.
In addition to his wife, of Beverly Hills, survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Gary Dawson of Thousand Oaks, Calif., and Mark Dawson of Van Nuys, Calif.; a daughter from his second marriage, Shannon Dawson of Beverly Hills; and four grandchildren.
He once reflected in an interview on his legacy.
“One day I’m going to have to answer for this,” he said, wryly referring to his game show work. “Up in heaven they’ll say: ‘Name?’ ‘Richard Dawson.’ ‘What did you do?’ ‘Me? Ah, well, um . . . Could I see you privately?’ ”