Chuck Barris, creator of 'The Gong Show' and 'The Dating Game,' dies at 87

Chuck Barris, “The Gong Show” creator and host who claimed — though never too seriously — that he doubled as a CIA assassin during the height of his game show popularity, has died at his home in Palisades, N.Y. He was 87.

The game show creator, producer and host died Monday of natural causes, a representative for his wife said.

Barris’ creations dominated the TV game show landscape in the 1960s and ’70s. He launched “The Dating Game” in 1965, an instant hit that inspired numerous imitations. Barris followed with “The Newlywed Game,” “The Game Game,” “The Gong Show,” “The $1.98 Beauty Show” and a Mama Cass special, among others.

"Those were the happiest days of my life," Barris said in a 2002 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "It was Camelot."

Charles Hirsch Barris was born June 3, 1929, in Philadelphia, the son of a dentist. He grew up with show business aspirations and climbed upward — one menial job after another. He was a salesman, an NBC tour guide, a gopher. He was also a songwriter, penning “Palisades Park,” which was turned into an uptempo hit in 1962 by Freddie Cannon.

His game shows were often derided by critics as trashy and sexist, and Barris himself — with ultra-wide lapels on jackets unbuttoned to roughly his navel — was loud and veered wildly between funny and obnoxious. But his shows became must-watch programming in America.

His Hollywood offices befitted the era, a 1969 Times article noted. The walls were decorated in a “freaky collage of pop-hippie art” and the staff seemed to consist of “super-cool chicks in miniskirts clacking away on typewriters.”

But his golden touch deserted him when he produced “The Gong Show Movie,” which had the sizable misfortune of being released the same weekend in 1980 as “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Shining.” The film tanked.

So he walked away, selling off his holdings and moving to the south of France with his future second wife, Robin Altman.

“I figured I didn’t have my finger on the pulse of what’s going on anymore, so I took off,” he told The Times in 2002. He told friends he planned to write the great American novel while in France.

Instead he started work on what would be “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” a purported autobiography in which he claimed to have been an undercover CIA agent, one minute an exuberant game show host, the next a shadowy hit man. Was any of it possibly true? The CIA said no, but Barris was coy.

“Have you ever heard the CIA acknowledge someone was an assassin?” he said in 2002. “Believe what you want.”

Far more real was his book “Della: A Memoir of My Daughter,” a sorrowful look inward after the overdose death of his only child. He wrote that he blamed himself for her fate, that he was so caught up in Hollywood that he had overlooked her needs until she dropped out of Beverly Hills High School and ran away from home. Years later, she was found dead in a Hollywood apartment.

In 2002, as George Clooney had just wrapped up work on the film version of “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” — perhaps pushing the storyline even further from the truth — Barris sat down with The Times and reflected. He was upbeat, and at times, melancholy.

He worried that his eventual obituary would be just what it was — the creator of the “Gong Show” and “The Dating Game” has died.

"I've created hit TV shows, but nothing has been great. I've written rock songs, but I'm not a big music star. I've penned a bestselling book, but I'm not Hemingway or Fitzgerald. I've never saved any lives. It's just middle-of-the-road greatness.

“So I know what my legacy will be. It's 'The Gong Show,' and that's a shame. It's not the legacy I want to have,” he said. “It gave the impression of me being a clown, a court jester. None of that's true."

Barris is survived by his wife, Mary.

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Times staff writer Steve Marble contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

12:55 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details on Barris’ career.

March 22, 12:05 p.m.: This article was updated with more details on Barris’ career.

This article was originally published March 21 at 11:15 p.m.

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