He may not have the enduring popularity of Johnny Carson, but Merv Griffin's charm, wit and intelligence made the talk-show host one of the masters of the genre.
Just as contemporary talk shows feature actors, musicians and celebrity chefs hawking their latest projects, the Emmy Award-winning "The Merv Griffin Show" (1962-86) mixed up all that self-promotion with unusual pairings of guests and in-depth conversations with the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Sen. Robert Kennedy, Salvador Dalí and Jack Benny.
MPI's new 12-disc DVD set shows Griffin's brilliance in the episodes and clips from his 1965-69 New York-based daytime syndicated series, which also featured veteran British actor Arthur Treacher as his acerbic sidekick.
In one episode from 1966, Griffin is unflappable when sex symbol Jayne Mansfield arrives onstage with her four children — including 2-year-old Mariska Hargitay, now of "Law & Order: SVU" fame — and their family dogs, which proceed to bite one another. Joining the chaos is one of Griffin's favorite guests, flamboyant performer Monti Rock III, who brings his terrier into the mix.
In another installment from 1966, record producer Phil Spector arrives unannounced and manages to insult comic Phil Foster and author-TV hostess Virginia Graham. As tensions rise into a shouting match between Foster and Spector, Griffin keeps his cool and defuses the situation with good humor until Spector saunters out of the theater.
"He was so good pulling stuff out of people," said son Tony Griffin, 54, who was frequently on the set.
Griffin didn't rely on pre-interview notes like most talk-show hosts. He was as comfortable asking Richard Nixon in 1967 if he was going to run for president as he was getting Orson Welles to talk about his past in an episode taped on the day the director of "Citizen Kane" died of a heart attack in 1985.
"He studied hard before every show," his son said. "He would have seven writers come in a couple of hours before the show. They would interview each guest and then would write notes and he'd read them. They would be all quiet and all of a sudden he would laugh or he would get angry and say this is the worst interview. You didn't get anything out of them. He'd chuck his notes and say, 'Let's go.' He didn't need his notes. He loved it."
Griffin, who died in 2007, taped over 5,000 shows but only about 2,000 still exist. Though Griffin owned all of his shows, his son said, "some are lost forever, some were taped over for various reasons. We are still looking for them."
Tony Griffin will appear at the Paley Center for Media's tribute "The Art of Talk: The Merv Griffin Show — A Look Back" on Wednesday in Beverly Hills. Joining Griffin will be Dick Carson, Johnny's brother, who directed Griffin's series, as well as David Peck and Tom Gulotta of Reelin' in the Years Productions, who produced the boxed set.
Peck said he was 20 when the show went off the air, so he wasn't really familiar with Griffin.
"I wasn't the demographic," he said. "But when we got the library and I was 20 to 30 hours into transferring tapes, it was like, 'This is an amazing archive.' I regret not seeing them, but then Merv's show was so intelligent, as a kid I probably wouldn't have gotten it anyway."
"One of the goals we set for ourselves when we started to put this set together was we need to repair Merv's reputation a bit," Gulotta said. "People of our generation really don't respect Merv Griffin like he should be respected. Not to say he was better than Johnny, but he should be mentioned in the same sentence as Johnny."
The archive, Peck and Gulotta discovered, wasn't in any manageable form. Tapes weren't transferred or cataloged.
"David and Tom took the tapes, digitized all of them properly and then went out and searched for more," Tony Griffin said.
Some episodes from his 1969-1972 CBS late-night series were discovered at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum because "The Merv Griffin Show" was one of the programs Nixon taped to see what his friends and enemies were saying about him.
Two segments from the library appear in the set: a 1970 interview with Gore Vidal just 10 days after the Kent State tragedy in which the author calls for Nixon's impeachment, and a 1972 interview with Warren Beatty, who was on the campaign trail for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern.
Tony Griffin acknowledged it has been hard to revisit the show. "I miss my dad," he said.
"When we moved the show out in 1970 to Los Angeles, I spent every afternoon after school at rehearsal," he recalled. "It was his favorite place to be on set — watching people doing their musical acts. That's when I asked him for money because he was at his happiest!"
'The Art of Talk: The Merv Griffin Show — A Look Back'
Where: The Paley Center for Media, 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday