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Affable TV host built an empire on 2 hit game shows

Times Staff Writer

Merv Griffin, the former big-band singer who leveraged his career as a popular TV talk-show host into a business empire whose foundations included the creation of the wildly successful syndicated game shows “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!,” died Sunday. He was 82.

Griffin died of prostate cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, according to a statement from his family that was released by Marcia Newberger, spokeswoman for his Beverly Hills-based Griffin Group.

On July 19, his company said that Griffin was being treated for a recurrence of prostate cancer discovered during a routine examination a few weeks earlier.

An entertainer-turned-entrepreneur, who sold Merv Griffin Enterprises to Coca-Cola Co. for $250 million in 1986 and recently was reported to have a net worth of $1.6 billion, Griffin presided over an array of business endeavors.

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His Griffin Group includes film and television production; a luxury home development in La Quinta; closed-circuit coverage of horse racing across the country; a real estate brokerage specializing in high-end residential properties; and a stable of thoroughbreds that includes Stevie Wonderboy, the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner at Belmont Park.

Since buying the Beverly Hilton in 1987 -- he spent millions renovating the hotel, which he sold in 2003 -- Griffin has bought and sold more than 20 hotels, gaming resorts and riverboats, including Resorts International in Atlantic City, N.J., and the Bahamas.

Although he was a TV talk-show host for more than two decades, Griffin’s most enduring show business claim to fame is creating and producing “Jeopardy!” (launched in 1964) and “Wheel of Fortune” (launched in 1975). Both shows originally aired on NBC and, beginning in the 1980s, became the two most popular syndicated game shows in television history.

Both programs were included in the 1986 sale of Merv Griffin Enterprises. But Griffin wrote the theme music for “Wheel of Fortune” and the famous “thinking music” played in the final round of “Jeopardy,” which continued to provide him with millions of dollars in royalties.

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“I have to say that the ongoing success of ‘Jeopardy!’ and ‘Wheel’ is my biggest thrill,” Griffin, a self-described “word and puzzle freak,” told the Hollywood Reporter in 2005. “I mean, they’re still right there at the top of the ratings -- they’ve never slipped. They’re timeless and ageless, and in the history of TV there has never been anything like them.”

In a statement Sunday, former First Lady Nancy Reagan called the news of Griffin’s death “heartbreaking” and remembered Griffin’s friendship and support during President Reagan’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

“Merv meant the world to me. He was there for me on some of the hardest days when Ronnie was fighting Alzheimer’s, and he was there for me every day after Ronnie died,” she said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recalled Sunday that he made his talk-show debut in the United States on Griffin’s show in 1974.

“Merv has always been a big part of my success,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement, recalling that Griffin appeared with him on the campaign trail during the 2003 recall election.

He called Griffin “an entertainment and business giant who excelled at whatever he put his mind to.”

In 2005, Griffin received a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and a similar award from the Museum of Television and Radio in New York, which is now called the Paley Center for Media.

“There really has been no one who has managed to have his type of success in front of and behind the camera,” Stuart N. Brotman, then-president of the Museum of Television and Radio, told the New York Times at the time. “He is a one-man conglomerate, and I can’t think of anyone else who has had that reach.”

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Critic and show business historian Leonard Maltin agreed.

“Other show business figures have gotten wealthy from good investments, but I can’t think of anyone who’s become a one-man conglomerate quite like Merv Griffin,” Maltin told the Los Angeles Times via e-mail. “The closest comparison I could make would be Gene Autry.”

For older Americans, Griffin is best remembered as the genial host of “The Merv Griffin Show.”

For two decades -- the Emmy Award-winning show aired variously on NBC, CBS and, for most of its 1960s-to-1980s run, in syndication -- Griffin presided over a wide-ranging gabfest.

Guests as varied as artists Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, writers Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, comedians Richard Pryor and Woody Allen, and film legends Bette Davis and Orson Welles dropped by to chat.

Also thrown into the mix were guests such as burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, transsexual Christine Jorgensen and visionary architect Buckminster Fuller -- as well as a string of politicians and newsmakers that included Richard Nixon, Robert F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and antiwar activist Abbie Hoffman.

Griffin also traveled to do filmed interviews with such notables as philosopher Bertrand Russell in London, actor Sean Connery in Cannes and French sex symbol Brigitte Bardot in Paris.

Pianist Roger Williams, a frequent guest on Griffin’s program, said that one of the reasons for the talk-show host’s success was his ability to engage his guests.

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“Merv was one of the best interviewers in the business because he was a great listener,” Williams said in a statement. “He really cared about what you were saying. He wasn’t busy thinking of what his next question was going to be.”

After moving his show to late night on CBS in 1969, Griffin altered the traditional talk-show format by introducing “theme” shows in which he devoted entire programs to a single topic or person. The first was a 90-minute salute to “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schulz.

Griffin also devoted theme shows to highly controversial subjects such as incest and pedophilia, which prompted good-natured jabs from late-night king Johnny Carson on rival NBC’s “The Tonight Show.”

As Griffin amusingly said of Carson in “Merv: Making the Good Life Last,” a 2003 book, “In his monologue, he’d often say something like: ‘Make sure you watch Merv tonight. He’s got one of his provocative themes. Six Lithuanian proctologists who want to be nuns.’ ”

Carson’s audience roared with laughter at such comments, Griffin wrote, but “it was always great publicity for us.”

From the beginning of “The Merv Griffin Show” in daytime on NBC in 1962 to its end in syndication in 1986, Griffin hosted more than 5,500 shows and interviewed more than 25,000 guests.

In an interview aired last month on the Fox News Channel program “Fox & Friends,” Griffin said that during the 23 years he did his show, “nobody knew what my political affiliations were.”

He also recalled the effect his show had on politics: “The Kennedy White House would call my producer. So they became aware of how valuable talk shows were to a candidate.”

But the heart of the show was the boyish and gregarious former “boy singer” for the Freddy Martin Orchestra, who scored an unlikely No. 1 hit in 1950 with his Cockney-accented rendition of “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.”

As Arthur Treacher, the dry-witted veteran British character actor who served as Griffin’s longtime announcer and sidekick, would intone at the start of each show:

“Look sharp! Here’s the dear boy himself, Merrrvyn!”

Born July 6, 1925, in San Mateo, Calif., Griffin began learning to play the piano at age 4 and later took lessons at a music conservatory in nearby San Francisco.

At 14, he was placed in charge of his church choir, for which he had to play the organ and often score an entire Mass himself. He also earned money playing the organ for weddings and funerals.

At San Mateo High School during the early years of World War II, Griffin assembled a small musical revue with three high school girl singers and performed at local USO shows.

The overweight Griffin was declared 4F after failing several military physical exams during which a slight heart murmur was detected. To contribute to the war effort, he took a job in the supply depot of a San Francisco shipyard for a time while attending classes at San Mateo Junior College. Nights, he wrote songs and entered talent contests.

In 1945, he heard about an audition for a piano player at radio station KFRC in San Francisco. When it turned out that the station needed a singer rather than a piano player, he auditioned for that instead.

His voice impressed station officials so much that they put him on as a guest singer on KFRC’s nationally syndicated “San Francisco Sketchbook” show the next night.

Two days later, the show changed its name to “The Merv Griffin Show,” and young Merv was hosting his own 15-minute radio show five days a week.

KFRC billed him as “America’s New Romantic Singing Star.” But at 5 feet 9 and 240 pounds, Griffin didn’t fit the image his radio listeners had of him. After a female fan from Fresno dropped by the station to meet him -- and burst out laughing upon seeing her radio idol in the flesh -- Griffin went on a crash diet and dropped down to 160 pounds.

One of his admirers was bandleader Freddy Martin, who heard Griffin’s show over KHJ in Los Angeles and invited him to join his band in 1948.

The job paid $150 a week -- a far cry from the $1,100 a week Griffin was earning for his radio show -- and entailed traveling in a bus doing one-nighters. But the allure of singing at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles and the Strand Theater on Broadway -- as well as recording with the band on RCA Victor -- easily won out.

As a singer with the Freddy Martin Orchestra from 1948 to 1952, Griffin recorded numerous songs, including “Wilhelmina,” “Never Been Kissed” and “Am I in Love.” His hit “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” for which he was paid only $50 to record, sold 3 million copies.

In 1952, Warner Bros. star Doris Day saw Griffin singing in a Las Vegas hotel and a screen test was arranged for him at the studio, which signed him to a long-term contract.

In addition to uncredited bit parts in several films, Griffin had small parts in “Cattle Town,” “Phantom of the Rue Morgue” and “The Boy From Oklahoma” and appeared opposite Kathryn Grayson in “So This Is Love,” which earned him a footnote in movie history: It was, he said in his book, “the first time an open-mouthed kiss had ever been shown in theaters.”

But after two lackluster years as a Warners contract player, Griffin bought out the remainder of his contract, moved to New York, where he appeared in a short-lived 1955 Broadway revival of the musical-comedy “Finian’s Rainbow,” and focused his professional attention on television.

He was hosting “Play Your Hunch” when he began substitute-hosting for Jack Paar once a week on “The Tonight Show” in early 1962.

Griffin proved to be a natural in the host’s chair and went on to guest-host “The Tonight Show” for a number of weeks that summer, after Paar quit the show and before Carson took over in the fall.

Having generated such big ratings that summer, Griffin was offered an hourlong daytime talk show by NBC. “The Merv Griffin Show” debuted in October 1962 on the same day Carson began hosting “The Tonight Show.”

Despite having stars such as Joan Crawford and Woody Allen as guests, “The Merv Griffin Show” was beaten in the ratings by the quiz show “Password.” NBC canceled Griffin’s show in April 1963.

In two weeks, Griffin wrote in his book, NBC received 160,000 letters of protest -- “the largest amount of mail ever received in support of a canceled show” at that time, he said.

Griffin returned to NBC in the fall of 1963 as host of a new game show, “Word for Word,” that he developed and which his newly created company had produced.

But in the spring of 1965, “The Merv Griffin Show” was back, this time as a 90-minute program syndicated by Group W, the broadcasting division of Westinghouse Corp.

After 2 1/2 years as CBS’ late-night talk-show offering -- from 1969 to 1971 -- “The Merv Griffin Show” moved back into syndication, this time with Metromedia Broadcasting, and ran from 1972 to 1986.

Griffin’s 1958 marriage to Julann Wright, whom he met when she was TV personality Robert Q. Lewis’ secretary-assistant, produced a son, Tony, and ended in divorce in 1976. Griffin later had a close relationship with actress Eva Gabor, who died in 1995.

In addition to being a close friend of Nancy Reagan, Griffin also served as one of five honorary pallbearers at President Reagan’s state funeral. Officials of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum near Simi Valley, where Griffin was a longtime member of the board of trustees, announced that a condolence book and photo tribute had been established for Griffin.

In 1991, Griffin, then 65, was facing a multimillion-dollar palimony suit from Brent Plott, a 37-year-old former employee who alleged that for years he had been Griffin’s business consultant and lover and was entitled to a large share of his fortune.

“We lived together, shared the same bed, same house,” Plott told NBC News. “He told me he loved me.”

In a statement issued by his attorney, Griffin denied Plott’s claims.

“This is a shameless attempt to extort money from me,” he said. “This former bodyguard and horse trainer was paid $250 a week, lived in one of two apartments underneath my former house as part of his security function, and left my payroll six or seven years ago. His charges are ridiculous and untrue.”

The same year, Deney Terrio, the host of “Dance Fever,” the disco show executive-produced by Griffin in the late 1970s and ‘80s, filed an $11.3-million sexual harassment suit against him.

Both cases reportedly were eventually dismissed, but questions about Griffin’s sexuality lingered.

For his part, Griffin dismissed the issue with characteristic good humor, telling the New York Times in 2005 with a sly grin: “I tell everybody that I’m a quatre-sexual: I will do anything with anybody for a quarter.”

Throughout his life, Griffin managed to remain upbeat.

“You know, I really never get down,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2005. “My philosophy is that you have to constantly be turning the page, which prevents me from getting caught up in any negativity. It’s all about change for me: I just keep moving and enjoy the ride.”

In addition to his son Tony and his wife Tricia, Griffin is survived by two grandchildren, Farah and Donovan Mervyn.

Services will be held at a later date by invitation only.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made to the Young Musicians Foundation, 195 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90212.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com


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