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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 early Sunday of prostate cancer in Los Angeles. He was 82.
He recently was diagnosed with a recurrence of the cancer that he had overcome more than a decade ago. It had progressed to other organs aggressively and unexpectedly, his doctors at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center said.
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.
“My father was a visionary,” Griffin’s son, Tony Griffin, said Sunday. “He loved business and continued his many projects and holdings even while hospitalized.”
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 said.
Griffin also was a longtime friend of former President Reagan and his wife, Nancy.
“This is heartbreaking, not just for those of us who loved Merv personally, but for everyone around the world who has known Merv through his music, his television shows and his business,” Nancy Reagan said. She said Griffin “was there for me every day after Ronnie died” in 2004.
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 and still owns “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 1957, he was commuting to Miami to host a show called “Going Places.”
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.
“Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak said Sunday that he had lost “a dear friend.”
“He meant so much to my life, and it’s hard to imagine it without him,” Sajak said.
Among his many honors, Griffin received a number of Daytime Emmys, including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. He was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame in 1994 and into the American Gaming Assn.’s Gaming Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2000, he received the Creative Achievement Award from NATPE.
He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a street named for him in Beverly Hills, Merv Griffin Way, which connects Santa Monica and Wilshire boulevards.
Griffin is survived by his son Tony, a writer, producer and development executive at Merv Griffin Entertainment; his daughter-in-law, Tricia; and two grandchildren.
His funeral Mass, by invitation only, will be held at a date to be determined at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Young Musicians Foundation: YMF, 195 S. Beverly Dr., Suite 414, Beverly Hills, CA 90212; or call (310) 859-7668.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Reaction to Sunday’s death of entertainer- businessman Merv Griffin:
“The loss of a dear friend has made it difficult to focus on Merv’s enormous contribution to the world of entertainment. That will come in time; for now, like his family and so many of his close friends, I’m dealing with deep sadness and the realization that I will never hear that wonderful laugh of his again.”
Pat Sajak, host of Griffin’s “Wheel of Fortune”
“Ronnie and I knew Merv for more years than I can even remember; more than 50, I’m sure. He was a dear, dear friend, and we became even closer in the last 15 years. He was there for me on some of the hardest days when Ronnie was fighting Alzheimer’s, and he was there for me every day after Ronnie died.”
Former first lady Nancy Reagan
“Merv was an extraordinary guy. Merv was a singer, interviewer, emcee, producer, creator, business impresario — he could do it all, and do it like no one else. Merv was one of the best interviewers in the business because he was a great listener. He really cared about what you were saying. He wasn’t busy thinking of what his next question was going to be.”
Pianist Roger Williams, a frequent guest on “The Merv Griffin Show”
“Working with Merv will always be the highlight of my career. He was the ultimate entertainer, businessman and teacher. Merv was a legend who could make you smile with a song, a joke or his infectious laugh. He touched so many lives and will be deeply missed.”
Ty Treadway, host of “Merv Griffin’s Crosswords”
“To say that working with Merv Griffin has been a highlight of our careers is an understatement. A true renaissance man, Merv never ceased to impress us with his creativity, vision and amazing sense of humor. He has literally touched generations of people both in our business and beyond with his contributions and generosity. That Merv was a genius in his work is beyond dispute. … Merv also had a special gift for discovering and encouraging young talent, and there are innumerable people who credit him with the essential boost that propelled their careers in entertainment. That legion of the grateful will be his legacy; we count ourselves among them.”
Ritch Colbert and Josh Raphaelson of Program Partners, which handles distribution for “Crosswords”
“Merv was an entertainment and business giant who excelled at whatever he put his mind to, and he will remain a legend in the hearts and minds of Californians forever. … We became good friends, and Merv has always been a big part of my success. He helped me gain exposure to American audiences and whenever I had a new movie in the works, Merv always took time out from his busy schedule to call or send me a note to say congratulations and wish me good luck.”
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said his first U.S. talk show appearance was on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1974.
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