'Father of Italian television' Bongiorno dies

Presented country's first TV show in 1953

MILAN, Italy -- Mike Bongiorno, "the father of Italian television" and a frequent presenter at the country's flagship Sanremo Song Festival, died Tuesday in Montecarlo of a heart attack. He was 85.

Bongiorno was born to Italian immigrant parents in New York in 1924, but the family later moved back to Italy. Bongiorno's knowledge of English led to his involvement in the Partisan resistance movement during the war and he was subsequently arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis.

Bongiorno returned to New York after the war and briefly worked for an Italian language radio program, "Il Progresso Italo-Americano," but continued his radio career in Italy. He presented Italy's first TV show, "Arrivi e Partenze" (Arrivals and Departures), on state-owned RAI TV in 1953. He established himself as a household name in the 1950s and 1960s, presenting popular quiz shows like "Lascia o Raddoppia?" (the Italian version of the $64,000 Question).

The first part of Bongiorno's television career was spent on the state-owned RAI monopoly, but when Italian TV was liberalized at the end of the 1970s he joined forces with an emerging entrepreneur, Silvio Berlusconi, with quiz shows like "Telemike" on his Mediaset networks.

Buongiorno presented Sanremo Festival five times in the 1960s, making his first appearance in 1963, and five times in the 1970s. He returned for his final appearance in 1997.

Bongiorno was a part of Italian cultural history and his death has been greeted with numerous tributes.