Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Late, Great Merv Griffin

Legendary talk show host and entertainment entrepreneur Merv Griffin died today at the age of 82 from prostate cancer. Griffin was the host of his own talk show for around twenty years, as well as created the game shows Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.

Merv Griffin was born Mervyn Edward Griffin on July 6, 1925 in San Mateo, California. As a boy he was trained as a classical pianist and at age 7 published his own neighbourhood newspaper (it sold for two cents a piece). By age 19 he was singing on the nationally syndicated radio show San Francisco Sketchbook. He was eventually hired by band leader Freddy Martin to tour with his orchestra. Griffin was with the orchestra for four years. His first number one record was his version of "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" in 1949. Griffin would eventually see success as a solo artist and even founded his own record label, Panda Records. On the recommendation of Doris Day and her husband, Marty Melcher, Griffin was signed to a motion picture deal with Warner Brothers. Despite his success as a singer, Griffin only received a few bit parts in such films as So This is Love and By the Light of Silvery Moon. Tired of bit parts, he eventually asked to be released from his contract.

As it turned out Griffin's greatest success would come on the small screen rather than the big screen. He had first appeared on television in 1952 on The Freddy Martin Show. In 1954 he was the host of a summer replacement series, Summer Holiday, on CBS. Griffin would soon find himself in demand as both a substitute host and a host on various TV shows. He was a substitute host on the Price is Right in the Fifties. He was also the host of the brief lived game show Keep Talking. He produced as well as hosted the short lived series Saturday Prom in 1960. By the early Sixties Griffin was a substitute host for Jack Paar on The Tonight Show. In fact, he was in the running to replace Paar, although the job eventually went to Johnny Carson. Because of his popularity as a substitute host on The Tonight Show, NBC awarded him his own talk show in the daytime. In some way, shape, or form The Merv Griffin Show would last until 1986. Merv Griffin was known for being more sophisticated than most talk show hosts and for never shying away from controversy. His show featured guests ranging from Zsa Zsa Gabor to John Lennon to Robert Kennedy to Bertrand Russell to Martin Luther King Jr. At times his guests could cause a bit of an uproar. In 1965 philosopher Bertrand Russell condemned the Vietnam War, resulting in the press having a field day with Griffin. When activist Abbie Hoffman wore a shirt resembling the American flag, CBS pixilated his image so that anyone watching wouldn't even know who it was.

While Griffin was one of the longest running and most important talk show hosts of time, he was also a major force in the world of game shows. In 1964 Griffin created and produced the original verison of Jeopardy, believed by some to be the second most successful game show of all time. Griffin followed this success in 1975 by creating and producing what would become the most successful game show of all time, Wheel of Fortune. Among the other game shows he created were the short lived Word for Word in 1963 and the television version of Monopoly.

There can be no doubt that Merv Griffin left his mark on television. As a talk show host he was folksy and friendly, but still willing to feature controversial guests on his series that other shows would avoid. Besides Bertrand Russell and Abbie Hoffman, writer Norman Mailer, visionary Buckminster Fuller, surrealist Salvador Dali, pop artist Andy Warhol, comedian Dick Gregory, and comedian George Carlin. In fact, CBS was sometimes nervous about Griffin's choice of guests. If Merv Griffin was only a talk show host, he would have left his mark on television history, but he also created the two most successful game shows of all time. Only The Price is Right approaches either Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune in success (although personally I preferred the original version of Jeopardy with Art Fleming and Don Pardo). Griffin has definitely left a lasting impact on American television. I doubt he will ever be forgotten.

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