Wheeling in a Fortune : Merv Griffin’s Finally Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts

Times Staff Writer

Maybe it was the lousy 50 bucks he got for recording the multimillion-selling “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Cocoanuts” back in 1949.

Or maybe it was the measly $119 a week he pulled down for hosting “Look Up & Live!,” an early, early Sunday-morning religious TV talk show in the mid-’50s.

Or maybe it was the entire year of 1956, when he sat by his non-ringing phone in dismal downtown Manhattan, contemplating poverty and the end of his show-biz career at age 31.


The exact moment that 63-year-old Merv Griffin bucked up his courage a la Scarlett O’Hara and decided that he would never be poverty-stricken again has been lost in time. The point is that he decided.

Nowadays, he sits out in the tennis pavilion of his walled-in Eden in Beverly Hills and laughs about those days when people could take advantage of the ambitious Catholic kid from San Mateo. His familiar cackle rises above the racket of contractors hammering and drilling and remodeling the 10,000-square-foot mansion he picked up through probate for a mere $5 million last year. MCA Chairman Lew Wasserman and his wife, Edie, live up the block. Denver oilman Marvin Davis and his wife, Barbara, live across the street.

“I couldn’t retire if I wanted to,” Griffin said. “The areas I’m involved in are so varied. It’s not just the performing aspects of my life.”

Griffin could definitely afford to retire. According to Forbes magazine’s annual roster of America’s richest 400 individuals, Mervyn Edward Griffin is worth about $300 million--give or take a few million. His net worth is up $65 million from 1986, according to the magazine. That was the same year he sold his Merv Griffin Enterprises to Coca-Cola for $250 million.

“That price has never been confirmed,” said Kimberly Wells, Griffin’s publicist.

“I’ll confirm it--and there’s more to come,” Griffin interrupted, nibbling at a slab of pound cake.

There are four Griffin movies in pre-production. There are his four radio stations, the nation’s largest closed-circuit TV system and his extensive real estate holdings, all overseen by his wholly owned Griffin Co. There are “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!,” the cash-cow game shows he invented and owned under the Merv Griffin Enterprises banner. When he sold Merv Griffin Enterprises to Coca-Cola, he kept a little something for himself, though--a five-year agreement that requires Griffin to continue personally coming up with the consonants and vowels that Vanna White flips over for Middle America.


“I mean, I work for Coca-Cola under an employment contract, and I still do the puzzles on ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and I still supervise both ‘Wheel’ and ‘Jeopardy!’,” he said.

Griffin may easily be one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood, but ego does not live on currency alone. That’s why he’s back on the tube tonight at 10 with a schmaltz-talk hour airing over NBC entitled “Secrets Women Never Share.” He pops up again Tuesday as one of the co-hosts of “The 12th Annual Circus of the Stars.” His 23-year-old son, Tony, appears as a trapeze act on that CBS special, which airs at 9 p.m.

And it doesn’t stop there.

He did a stint with old talk-show rival Johnny Carson last week on “The Tonight Show,” plugging his upcoming return to network television for the first time in 16 years. He’s producing a made-for-TV feature entitled “Wheel of Fortune--The Movie.” And he’s still trying to peddle a Big Band pilot called “Cocoanut Ballroom” featuring the one-time Freddy Martin Orchestra singer conducting his own musical group, the Mervtones.

“If we ever sell it (as a series), maybe we’ll shoot in the ballroom at the Beverly Hilton,” he said. “It’s got a huge ballroom and it’d make a perfect setting!”

And why not? It won’t cost anything. Griffin’s latest purchase, which cannot be discussed “for contractual reasons,” according to Wells, is the deed to the 578-room Beverly Hilton Hotel. After losing out to the Sultan of Brunei in a bidding war for the Beverly Hills Hotel in October, Griffin outbid a consortium of Japanese businessmen for the Hilton flagship three weeks ago. He is rumored to have paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million for it.

“The first thing we’re gonna do is get room service down from 45 minutes to 12 minutes,” he joked.

In the meantime, Griffin’s not waiting around for the networks to wise up to the marketability of “Cocoanut Ballroom.”

“I made it, but I can’t get anybody to buy it because they’re so concerned with demographics that they’re afraid it might skew . . . now there’s a great show-business word . . . skew ‘old.’

“So network people come and say: ‘Well, if you add younger people to it, maybe.’ But it was such a departure from everything that you see on television right now. We did it and it’s a one-hour show. The most remarkably entertaining show. But, you see, networks are committed to demographics and research and that’s why everything you see on television in the way of entertainment is the same. Because they research it.”

And at this musing, the bubbling, effervescent multimillionaire Merv Griffin gives way to the molar-grinding Merv Griffin of 1956 who sat by the telephone that didn’t ring. He narrows his rheumy blue eyes to slits and grumbles about the unceremonious way he was dumped from the CBS schedule in 1971 by then-network chief Fred Silverman because Griffin refused to give in to research and demographics and know-it-all TV executives. Silverman wanted to turn his CBS talk show into a song-and-dance variety show, Griffin said.

“I went at loggerheads with Freddie Silverman, and that was when I left CBS. It was his desire to have me turn my show’s format back to what had been the beginning of nighttime programming, which was like the old ‘Jerry Lester Show.’ It was pre-Steve Allen, for crying out loud. That was Freddie’s brilliant idea for me.

“And I said: ‘Well, go get Jerry Lester. I don’t do shows like that.’ And then he had that power thing where he said: ‘You will!’ And I said: ‘I won’t,’ and then it got to some other words and we’ve never seen each other again since.”

Griffin heard the old Hollywood cliche about never working again, but he waltzed directly into the golden syndication deal with Metromedia that eventually led to the tidy nest egg he now enjoys in Beverly Hills. After leaving CBS, Griffin produced his own talk show for another 15 years with complete creative control. Along the way, his production company began dabbling in specialty programs like “Dance Fever” and the biggest gold mine of all, game shows.

And, again, there was the question of audience research.

“ ‘Jeopardy!’ tested in research the worst I have ever seen anything test,” Griffin recalled. “And the host, Alex Trebeck, is now proving to be the best game show host on television ever. And ‘Wheel of Fortune’ tested terribly five years ago for the nighttime version.

“So what does that say?” he asked, answering his own question with a slap of his fist against his open palm. “We’ve got to stop testing our product. I mean, you can test for things like who has a college education. Hell, that kind of research is good. You can find out who the audience is.

“But don’t say to them ‘Is this a good show?’ because they don’t know. They only have their history of what they’ve seen in the past to judge with. If you look at the research, they hate any newcomer! Hate them! Every new emcee that we put on a new game show, the test audience goes ‘Oh! Awful!’ (‘Wheel of Fortune’s’ Pat) Sajak tested bad. So did Trebeck. Because the audience doesn’t want to see a new face!”

Griffin attacked another piece of pound cake, explaining away the ravenous appetite that has pushed his weight past the 200-pound mark on giving up smoking two weeks ago.

“Audiences want to see familiar things,” he said, brightening with some self-deprecating humor. “Maybe that’s why I’m still popular because I’m old and familiar.” NBC obviously believes he is still popular. When the network wanted a Barbara Walters-type special involving celebrity interviews, Griffin’s was the first door knocked on. Ironically, his return to network TV tonight is the direct result of research and demographics.

“They came to us with a title,” he said. “NBC said: ‘What would you do with this: Secrets Women Never Share’? And we said ‘Where’d you get the title?’ And they said ‘We’ve got a new thing: the networks take a lot of titles without having shows attached and they research them in front of research groups all over the U.S. and this one title kept going through the ceiling and they brought it to us.”

There were plenty of titillating secrets gleaned from Shelley Long, Carol Burnett, Joan Collins, Brigitte Nielsen, Raquel Welch and Lauren Bacall as it turned out. Brigitte Nielsen huffily answered Griffin’s question about what it would take to get her into bed. “Several of them made a point of telling me that they weren’t ‘bitches.’ I mean, they went out of their way to tell me!,” Griffin said. And Burnett revealed in a portion of the interview that was not included in the show that she was once the Hollywood High School president of the Merv Griffin fan club in the early ‘50s, when he was still the singer for Freddy Martin’s band.

“Our next one will be ‘Secrets Men Don’t Share,’ ” Griffin quipped. “But seriously, if you want to research titles, fine. But don’t research content. Don’t research ideas. The chief reason for research is ‘cover your (rear end)’ for a number of executives. They do research so they can go back later and say: ‘Well, gee, look what the people said about it.’ ”

Always a patrician patriarch of popular taste, Griffin has the most--and the least--respect for popular opinion.

“You don’t ask the public,” he said with measured contempt. “You don’t ask your elevator man: ‘Is the show good?’ You put it out there in front of them!”

Then, he says, the elevator men will let everyone know whether the show is any good. If it’s a failure, as Griffin readily admits many of his programs have been, one learns and grows. If it’s a success, there’s more cash available to buy hotels and to thumb one’s nose at research once again.

“I went to NBC and asked for Sajak for ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ ” Griffin said, remembering one of his more successful non-researched hunches. “And they said: ‘No, no, no! He’s a weatherman. Not even a network weatherman. He’s local (on KNBC in Los Angeles). He’s not acceptable.’

“We had a terrible battle on our hands until I said ‘That’s easy: I stop taping ‘Wheel of Fortune’ until he’s on there.’ ”

The choice of Vanna White was equally shrewd, if not quite as instinctive.

“Vanna’s picture was one of 10 on my desk. I pointed to it and said: ‘Her.’ Why? Because her head’s too big for her body. When you look at her 8 x 10s, her head’s so big that all of her features--her mouth, her great big eyes--all stand out. The camera loves her! It’s true of all the big stars if you look at them. Joan Crawford, Marilyn Monroe . . . Bette Davis, although her head’s gotten smaller with age. But they all have heads that are too big for their bodies!”

Griffin attacked some more pound cake, brushing the crumbs from his black sweater and trousers. He tapped a pink packet of Sweet ‘N Low into his coffee and washed down the last of the cake, apologizing once more for being so hungry.

“You know, this is the first time I’ve wanted a cigarette in two weeks? I stopped smoking on smoke-out day and I’m just putting on pounds as fast as I can.”

He has plenty of places to work it off. In addition to the tennis courts and the obligatory swimming pool, there are several wooded acres for hiking behind his mansion. Deer and squirrels and other wildlife thrive in Griffin’s woods.

He recently bought another 157 acres farther up the mountain where he’s leveling off a 16-acre mountaintop to create yet another, more secluded and splendid hermitage.

Until it’s finished, he must live in the lowlands and put up with the same mundane frustrations as everyone else. Take the problem of security, for instance.

“One night not long ago, around dusk, a man showed up at our gate with an Uzzi and it registered on all our television cameras--and of course my guards grabbed shotguns and pushed the panic button,” Griffin said. “But it turns out the guy is a new Arab guard that they brought in from Saudi Arabia or somewhere and he was supposed to be guarding the Arabs down the road here and he just got his gates mixed up. He was guarding me instead.”

That got the instinctive Merv to thinking.

“Alan Alda came over and we got to talking about all the full-time guards at all the houses around here,” Griffin said. “And out of the blue, Alan said: ‘What would happen if there was a guard war in Beverly Hills?’

“We sat there and we must have laughed for 15 minutes about Marvin Davis’ guards and the Arab guards down the street. You got a crazy street here. I mean, this whole couple of streets right here is an armed fortress.”

There is no research, no elevator man, no TV executive who can argue against Griffin when he knows he’s found a dynamite idea and this one, he says, is absolutely explosive.

“Wouldn’t that be a funny movie?” he said, laughing long and loud. “A war? Guards attacking each other?”