Sunday, August 12, 2007

Merv Griffin – 1925-2007

Merv Griffin was a giant of the Television industry. The former big band singer parlayed his talent and entrepreneurial skills into a multi-million dollar empire, and he seemed to have fun doing it.

Born Mervyn Edward Griffin in San Mateo California he first came to public attention as a 19-year old singer on KFRC radio in San Francisco. This in turn led to a job touring with Freddy Martin's big band. Following his time with Martin he started a successful solo career in night clubs which allowed him to start an independent record label, Panda Records. His album "Songs by Merv Griffin" was the first to be recorded on magnetic tape and his recording of "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" sold over 3 million copies and was number one on the hit parade. Doris Day "discovered" him during one of his nightclub appearances and arranged a screen test for him at Warner Brothers. He appeared in a number of relatively minor roles in films in the early to mid-1950s the most famous of which was So This Is Love in which he and Kathryn Grayson (in her first film role) shared the first "open mouth kiss" in American movies.

During the '50s he was also a popular guest on various TV shows as a singer. In 1958 he was selected by Mark Goodson and Bill Toddman to host their game show Play Your Hunch, which he did for four years (1958-1962). During a live broadcast of Play Your Hunch, Griffin was able to manage an impromptu interview with Tonight Show host Jack Paar after Paar wandered onto the set of the show (Paar was superstitious and was trying to avoid the elevators at Rockefeller Center for some reason). This led to him guest hosting the Tonight Show, which in turn led to NBC offering him an afternoon talk show in 1962. The NBC version of The Merv Griffin Show failed but NBC gave him the opportunity to host and produce a new game show called Word For Word. This too lasted a single season. Griffin then revived the afternoon Merv Griffin Show this time as a syndicates show produced by Griffin and distributed by Group W (Westinghouse broadcasting which also distributed the Mike Douglas Show. Griffin's affiliation with Group W ended in 1969 when he made an ill-advised move to CBS to challenge Johnny Carson in late night (interestingly, one of Griffin's directors – the only one credited by IMDB - was Dick Carson, Johnny's brother). Network interference led to numerous conflicts even as the show wallowed in the ratings – sometimes even losing out to Dick Cavett on ABC. Eventually CBS cut Griffin loose but realizing the end was near at CBS he had already set up a distribution deal with Metromedia for a renewed version of the daytime Merv Griffin Show which ran from 1972 to 1986.

During this time Griffin was also busy as a game show producer. In 1964 he created Jeopardy for NBC, based on an idea that his then wife Julann who had the idea of turning the old quiz show staple of asking questions and giving answers on its head by giving the players answers and having them formulate questions. In addition to producing the show Griffin also wrote the music including the "Final Jeopardy" theme. This first version of Jeopardy hosted by Art Fleming ran until 1975. NBC allowed Griffin the opportunity to create the replacement for Jeopardy and came up with a word puzzle based on "Hangman" called Wheel Of Fortune hosted by Chuck Woolery (later replaced by Pat Sajak) and Susan Stafford (replaced by Vanna White) as hostess and "letter turner." The show was a modest success for NBC – it featured a shopping round after each game finished where players had to spend their winnings, frequently on some of the most tasteless kitsch you've ever seen (lots of brass) – but really took off in 1983 when Griffin syndicated the series. Jeopardy was also revived in 1984 with Alex Trebek replacing Fleming (who had hosted a short-lived revival of the show on NBC in 1978-79).

In 1986 Griffin ended his syndicated talk show – he decided that it was the right time based on changes in the marketplace – and sold his production company (and Jeopardy and Wheel Of Fortune) to Columbia Pictures Television – then owned by Coca-Cola – for $250 million. He soon became involved in real estate development. One of his first purchases was the Beverly Hilton Hotel which he bought for $100 million and spent $25 million refurbishing. He also became involved in a feud with Donald Trump over control of Resorts International, which ended with Trump gaining control of the Taj Mahal Casino project – then under construction – and Griffin wining the Resorts Atlantic City (the former Chalfonte-Haddon Hall Hotel) and the Paradise Island resort. Griffin was also involved in residential real estate and horse racing. Most recently he returned to his roots as a TV producer producing the psychic readings show Lisa Williams: Life Among the Dead for the Lifetime Network, and a new syndicated game show called Merv Griffin's Crosswords which will debut in September. In 2001 he also returned to the recording studio with the album It's Like a Dream

Griffin's last TV appearance (not counting an appearance on Entertainment Tonight) was as a guest on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson in November 2006. Griffin had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1996 but had apparently successfully beaten the disease. He was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Hospital last month with a recurrence of the disease. According to doctors at the hospital the cancer had spread to other organs in an "unexpected and immediate'' manner.

As a game show producer Merv Griffin had a genius for taking a simple idea – a trivia quiz where the contestant gives the question instead of the answer; the kids' game "Hangman" – and make it a challenging and, more importantly, entertaining concept. It is as a talk show host that he truly shone, at least for me. While NBC cancelled the original version of the Merv Griffin Show as "being 'too sophisticated' for the housewife audience," he seemed to know that he had the right formula. While never as intellectual as Dick Cavett's various shows, Griffin didn't avoid intellectually challenging guests. Amongst his guests were Bertrand Russel, Pablo Cassals and Will & Ariel Durant. Other guests included at least four US Presidents, Robert Kennedy, John Lennon (when he was still with The Beatles) and Martin Luther King. His shows encouraged new talent including Jerry Seinfeld and Richard Pryor. The DVD set The Merv Griffin Show: 40 of the Most Interesting People of Our Time includes such guests as Richard Nixon, Ingrid Bergman, David Niven, Roger Vadim and then wife Jane Fonda, Grace Kelly, Laurence Olivier, John Wayne and Jack Benny. Orson Welles was a frequent guest – usually doing a magic trick during his each of his fifty or so appearances. In fact the DVD set includes Welles's last appearance with Griffin, recorded just hours before Welles died. And virtually all of this was done for an audience of "housewives" who according to NBC were too unsophisticated or this sort of material. Merv Griffin understood his audience better than the network weasels and built an empire out of it. If for nothing else he should be remembered for that.

Following is an excerpt from an episode of the Merv Griffin Show featuring a song by Howard Keel (before Dallas) followed by an interview.

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