Merv Griffin, the mogul who hosted an eponymous talk show for more than 20 years, created the globally popular game shows “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” and oversaw a diversified empire via the Griffin Group, died yesterday (Aug. 12) of prostate cancer in Los Angeles. He was 82.
Griffin’s influence resonates through myriad industries: He began his career in the 1940s as a singer, then became a Warner Bros. contract actor, starred on Broadway, segued to TV host, created TV game shows, started a production company and eventually owned hotels, casinos, radio stations and more.
When Griffin entered a hospital a month ago, he was working on the first week of production of a new syndicated game show, “Merv Griffin’s Crosswords,” his son Tony said.
Griffin first gained national fame singing a faux-Cockney version of “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” which topped hit parades around the country. Other hits and a brief movie career followed, during which he caused a stir by sharing with Kathryn Grayson the first open-mouthed kiss in Hollywood history.
But Griffin became a household name as host of “The Merv Griffin Show,” created by NBC in 1962. It was syndicated by Group W in 1965 in a 90-minute format, giving him complete creative control over every aspect of the show. Griffin introduced to Americans such future stars as George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, Jerry Seinfeld and Whitney Houston. He also interviewed four U.S. presidents, Martin Luther King Jr., Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell and John Lennon, in his only TV interview while still a Beatle.
“My satisfaction came from conversing with intelligent people who had something important to say,” Griffin said. In all, he hosted 5,500 shows and interviewed more than 25,000 guests during 23 years.
Griffin later created “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” — the two most successful game shows in television syndication history — and wrote their theme songs. These two shows, which are seen around the world, had netted Griffin more than $1 billion as of 2005.
In 1986, Columbia Pictures Entertainment, then a subsidiary of the Coca-Cola Co., purchased his production company, Merv Griffin Enterprises, for $250 million. That year, Forbes magazine named him the richest Hollywood performer in history on its annual list of the 400 wealthiest people in the U.S.
In 1987, he established the Griffin Group, whose holdings have included the Beverly Hilton and many other hotels and resorts, radio stations, casinos and equestrian-related companies. The Griffin Group also encompasses Merv Griffin Entertainment, the production entity formed in 1995 that has created and sold numerous television and film projects.
Mervyn Edward Griffin Jr. was born July 6, 1925, in San Mateo, Calif. An entrepreneur at an early age, he also studied as a classical pianist. By 19, he was singing on “San Francisco Sketchbook,” a nationally syndicated radio show broadcasting from San Francisco. He started on a Friday; on Monday, the name of the program was changed to “The Merv Griffin Show.”
Within a year, he founded Panda Records, which produced “Songs by Merv Griffin,” the first American album ever recorded on magnetic tape, now enshrined in the Ampex Museum at Stanford University. Griffin soon took a touring gig singing with Freddy Martin’s orchestra, playing at venues around the country. In 1952, he began a brief film career that included “So This Is Love,” with the controversial kiss, and “The Boy From Oklahoma.”
Moving to New York soon after for a fresh start, Griffin landed a gig as host of CBS-TV’s “Look Up and Live,” a Sunday morning religious program with Mahalia Jackson and Sidney Poitier as regular performers. He then hosted the “CBS Morning Show” and became a regular guest on “The Jack Paar Show,” “The Arthur Murray Show” and others.
By the end of January 1962, Griffin was substituting for Paar once a week on “The Tonight Show.” His ratings were so strong that NBC gave him his own hourlong talk show. One of his first decisions was to contract Woody Allen for a weekly appearance.
When NBC canceled “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1963 and received 160,000 letters of protest in less than two weeks, the network quickly got him back on the air. They ordered his game show “Word for Word,” which was based on his lifelong interest in words and puzzles. Soon after, he created “Jeopardy!” which was launched in 1964. “Wheel of Fortune” bowed in 1975.