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Richard Dawson, Host of 'Family Feud,' Dies at 79

richard dawson family feud

The legendary British comedian, also known for his role as POW Peter Newkirk on "Hogan's Heroes," died of esophageal cancer.

Richard Dawson, the charming actor and Emmy-winning host of Family Feud, one of television's most popular game shows, died Saturday night from complications related to esophageal cancer at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, his son Gary said. He was 79.

Dawson played the Cockney Brit Peter Newkirk on the classic CBS sitcom Hogan's Heroes from 1965 to 1971 (of the series, set in a German POW camp, he once quipped, "We ran six years, a year longer than Hitler) and parodied his game-show persona as the snarky bad guy in Stephen King's 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger action film The Running Man. He also was a regular on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In in the early 1970s.

It was Dawson's popularity as the star in the left seat on the front row on another classic game show, Match Game, that prompted producer Monty Hall to hire the British native as host of a revived Masquerade Party in 1974. After a brief run there, Dawson continued on Match Game until 1976, when he began his stint as the charismatic, kissing host of the Mark Goodson & Bill Todman-created Feud, which began on ABC in 1976. His trademark line, "The survey says," spoken before panels on a scoreboard flipped to reveal the correct answers (or didn't flip for wrong answers), became a popular catchphrase.

In a December 2010 interview for the Archive of American Television, Dawson talked about kissing all those contestants on the show.

"It’s very important to me that on Family Feud I could kiss all people," he said. "It sounds crazy, but when I first came here, Petula Clark was on a show with Nat King Cole and he kissed her on the cheek and 81 stations in the South canceled him. I kissed black women daily and nightly on Family Feud for 11 years and the world didn’t come to an end, did it?"

At the height of its success, Feud was the No. 1 daytime show and the No. 1 syndicated show. It aired 11 times a week (five in daytime) and ran as 20 primetime specials. (The show, now hosted by Steve Harvey, still airs in syndication.)

So popular was Dawson, Johnny Carson and NBC considered him as a replacement for Carson on The Tonight Show when the host was considering retirement. Dawson fronted Tonight for a week and the show saw a ratings bump, but Carson decided not to retire.

On Feud in 1981, Dawson met contestant Gretchen Johnson when she appeared on the show with her parents and siblings. They dated for several years, were married and had a daughter, Shannon, in 1990. He was married to British actress Diana Dors from 1959-66.

“It is with a very heavy heart that I inform you that my father passed away this evening from complications due to esophageal cancer," Gary Dawson posted to Facebook early Sunday morning. "He was surrounded by his family. He was an amazing talent, a loving husband, a great dad and a doting grandfather. He will be missed but always remembered.”

Dawson was born Nov. 20, 1932, in Gosport, Hampshire, England as Colin Lionel Emm. He joined the Merchant Marines at age 14 and served for three years, then worked as a stand-up comedian in clubs in London's West End including the legendary Stork Room.

Appearances on such series as The Dick Van Dyke Show and a performance as a military prisoner in King Rat (1965) led to his stint on Hogan's Heroes, Password and later Match Game.

Dawson, regarded as one of the best game-show players ever, recalled a time on Match Game when he had to come up with a word following "Adolph" for a contestant to win a lot of money (her answer was "Hitler"). Dawson had watched the 1957 film Paths of Glory the previous night and said, "Menjou." He called that his worst moment on the game show.

"I should be beaten," he recalled. "I said right there, it's time to retire. If I'm missing clues like Adolph Hitler, I'm all washed up."

Dawson also starred in the war film The Devil's Brigade (1968) alongside William Holden and Munster, Go Home! (1966) and was a regular on The New Dick Van Dyke Show in 1973-74.

In 1994, Dawson returned to host a syndicated edition of  Feud, replacing Ray Combs for what became the final season of the show's second run (1988–95).

"We froze a moment in time for a whole family," Dawson said of the show in the Archive interview. "We would give them a videocassette, 'The Johnson Family,' for example … that was magic for them."

In addition to Gary, Gretchen and Shannon, survivors include son Mark, an entertainment manager, and four grandchildren.