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Merl Reagle dies at 65; maker of L.A. Times Sunday crossword puzzles

 Merl Reagle dies at 65; maker of L.A. Times Sunday crossword puzzles
Merl Reagle's crossword puzzles were a regular Sunday feature in the Los Angeles Times and about 50 other newspapers around the world. Known for his gentle wit, he described his puzzles as "twisted but fair." (Getty)

Crossword puzzle creator Merl Reagle, whose Sunday puzzles for the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers were known for their wit, puns and wicked inventiveness, died Saturday in a Tampa, Fla., hospital. He was 65.

Reagle suddenly took ill Thursday and was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, said his wife, Marie Haley. He slipped into a coma and did not regain consciousness.

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His puzzle for this Sunday in The Times, as well as the Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer among the roughly 50 papers that carried his syndicated work, is titled "Things Are People, Too." It's unclear whether he had prepared additional new puzzles, but Haley said it was unlikely because he often worked right up to deadline.

Reagle, who liked to work in coffee shops and other public places where he could try out his puns and other wordplay on people, was one of the best known and most beloved crafters of puzzles in the business. He was featured in the 2006 documentary on crosswords, "Wordplay," appeared as an animated version of himself in an episode of "The Simpsons" and was once on "Oprah."

He was one of the few people in the field who could make a living entirely on the puzzles — in addition to his weekly offerings, he put out several collections in book form.

Although his crosswords were far from easy, he steered away from the kind of esoteric terms found just about nowhere but crossword puzzles. He cited two examples, "Anoa, which is an ox. Ern, which is a sea eagle," in a 2013 Hartford Courant interview. "You see documentaries about those animals, and they don't call them erns."

Reagle favored wit over obscurity.

For a puzzle he called "Movies That Shouldn't Be Shown Together," one of the answers was "DRIVING MISS DAISY NUTS."

Another, called "But Cereally, Folks," had as a clue, "New cereal for Southern California?" The answer: "SMOG CHEX."

And he loved anagrams. For a puzzle that featured song titles with one word scrambled, the answer to "Anagrammy-winning baking song?" was, "YOU OUGHT TO BE IN PIE CRUST."

His playfulness with language attracted well-known writers as fans, including screenwriter Steve Zaillian, who won an Oscar for "Schindler's List."

Zaillian said in a 2013 Cleveland Plain Dealer interview that before he started doing Reagle's puzzles, "I don't think I ever thought about there being an actual person behind the process of crossword construction. But there's such a vivid personality that comes across (and down) in Merl's clever themes and clues, a wit residing in an unusual mind that I would say is singular in puzzledom."

He went on to compare Reagle's puzzles to the way an O. Henry story "surprises and delights."

Reagle, who started constructing crossword puzzles at age 6 and made his first puzzle sale, to the New York Times, at 16, clearly took delight in the work.

"I always felt," he told the Plain Dealer, "the English language was the best toy a boy ever had."

He was born Jan. 5, 1950, in Audubon, N.J. His mother was a nurse who moved him and his brother to Tucson when he was 10.

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"I was into building things, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs," he said in a 2013 Philadelphia Inquirer interview. "One day I discovered you could link words together."

He attended the University of Arizona, where he was a copy editor for the student newspaper, the Daily Wildcat. As much as he loved puzzles, he couldn't see doing them as much more than a hobby.

"I remember thinking," he told the Daily Wildcat in 2009, "'Who wants to be 58 years old and look back and say, 'I made crossword puzzles my whole life.'"

But a move to the Los Angeles area, where he had a few jobs including as a writer on the quiz shows "Couch Potatoes" and "Crosswits," convinced him that he might indeed try to be that guy. In 1979, he began working at puzzles full time — his breakthrough was making a deal with the San Francisco Examiner for a weekly puzzle.

His focus on humor got plenty of pushback from traditional crossword solvers, at first.

"Most people were not used to seeing a puzzle that was funny, not in newspapers," he told the Hartford Courant in 2013. "I was changing the crossword, knowing how fanatical the fans are. Solvers don't expect to laugh out loud when they're puzzle solving.

"I decided to deal with the onslaught of mail for a few months."

It's doubtful that the puzzle maker who came up with "Least popular cookbook ever: TO GRILL A MOCKINGBIRD" or "I'm not a bad duck, I'm just MALLARD JUSTED," could have helped himself anyway.

"Language is a playground," he told the Daily Wildcat in 2014, "that never ends."

In addition to his wife, Reagle is survived by his father, Sam; and a brother, also named Sam.

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