Merv Griffin, entertainer turned businessman, dies at age 82

Monday, August 13, 2007
First lady Nancy Reagan met with talk show host Merv Griffin in this Oct. 6, 1982 file photo, when she appeared for a taping of Griffin's show to promote her new book on foster grandparents, "To Love A Child." A spokesperson for Merv Griffin reported Sunday the entertainer and entrepreneur had died at age 82. (Associated Press file)

LOS ANGELES -- Merv Griffin, the big band-era crooner turned impresario who parlayed his "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune" game shows into a multimillion-dollar empire, died Sunday. He was 82.

Griffin died of prostate cancer, according to a statement from his family that was released by Marcia Newberger, spokeswoman for The Griffin Group/Merv Griffin Entertainment.

From his beginning as a $100-a-week San Francisco radio singer, Griffin moved on as vocalist for Freddy Martin's band, sometime film actor, TV game and talk show host, and made Forbes' list of richest Americans several times.

"The Merv Griffin Show" lasted more than 20 years, and Griffin said his capacity to listen contributed to his success.

"If the host is sitting there thinking about his next joke, he isn't listening," Griffin reasoned in a recent interview.

Merv Griffin, 79, poses for a photo at his office in Beverly Hills, Calif., in this Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2004 file photo. Merv Griffin, who went from big-band era crooner to fabulously successful TV talk show host before making a fortune as the creator of two of television's most popular game shows and then parlaying that into a billion-dollar hotel empire, died Sunday, Aug. 12, 2007. He was 82. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)

But his biggest break financially came from inventing and producing "Jeopardy" in the 1960s and "Wheel of Fortune" in the 1970s. After they had become the hottest game shows on television, Griffin sold the rights to Coca Cola's Columbia Pictures Television Unit for $250 million in 1986, retaining a share of the profits. He also continued to receive royalties for the popular "Jeopardy!" theme song, which he wrote.

"My father was a visionary," Griffin's son, Tony Griffin, said in a statement issued 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 was also 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 in a statement.

She said Griffin "was there for me every day after Ronnie died" in 2004.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recalled Sunday that his very first U.S. talk show appearance was on "The Merv Griffin Show" in 1974.

"We became good friends, and Merv has always been a big part of my success," the former actor and bodybuilding champion said. "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."

The governor said Griffin "excelled at whatever he put his mind to, will remain a legend in the hearts and minds of Californians forever."

"Wheel of Fortune" host Pat Sajak said he had lost "a dear friend."

"He meant so much to my life, and it's hard to imagine it without him," Sajak said.

For several years, Griffin was frequently seen in the company of actress Eva Gabor, who died in 1995.

"I'm very upset at the news. He was a very close friend of ours, a good friend of mine and a good friend of Eva's," Gabor's sister, Zsa Zsa Gabor, told The Associated Press by phone Sunday. "He was just a wonderful, wonderful man."

Griffin started putting the proceeds from selling "Jeopardy" and "Wheel" in treasury bonds, stocks and other investments, but went into real estate and other ventures because "I was never so bored in my life."

"I said `I'm not going to sit around and clip coupons for the rest of my life,"' he recalled in 1989. "That's when Barron Hilton said `Merv, do you want to buy the Beverly Hilton?' I couldn't believe it."

Griffin bought the slightly passe hotel for $100.2 million and completely refurbished it for $25 million. Then he made a move for control of Resorts International, which operated hotels and casinos from Atlantic City to the Caribbean.

That touched off a feud with real estate tycoon Donald Trump. Griffin eventually acquired Resorts for $240 million, even though Trump had held 80 percent of the voting stock.

"I love the gamesmanship," he told Life magazine in 1988. "This may sound strange, but it parallels the game shows I've been involved in."

In recent years, Griffin also rated frequent mentions in the sports pages as a successful race horse owner. His colt Stevie Wonderboy, named for entertainer Stevie Wonder, won the $1.5 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile in 2005.

His 1997 game show, "Click," also introduced a young host named Ryan Seacrest to the public.

In 1948, Freddy Martin hired Griffin to join his band at Los Angeles' Coconut Grove at $150 a week. With Griffin doing the singing, the band had a smash hit with "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Cocoanuts," a 1949 novelty song sung in a cockney accent.

Doris Day and her producer husband, Marty Melcher, saw the band in Las Vegas and recommended Griffin to Warner Bros., which offered a contract. After a bit in "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," starring Day and Gordon MacRae, he had a bigger role with Kathryn Grayson in "So This Is Love." But after a few more trivial roles, he asked out of his contract.

In 1954, Griffin went to New York where he appeared in a summer replacement musical show on CBS-TV, a revival of "Finian's Rainbow," and a music show on CBS radio. He followed with a few TV game show hosting jobs, notably "Play Your Hunch," which premiered in 1958 and ran through the early 1960s. His glibness led to stints as substitute for Jack Paar on "Tonight."

When Paar retired in 1962, Griffin was considered a prime candidate to replace him. Johnny Carson was chosen instead. NBC gave Griffin a daytime version of "Tonight," but he was canceled for being "too sophisticated" for the housewife audience.

Westinghouse Broadcasting introduced "The Merv Griffin Show" in 1965 on syndicated TV. Griffin never underestimated the intelligence of his audience, offering such figures as philosopher Bertrand Russell, cellist Pablo Casals and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer-philosopher-historians Will and Ariel Durant as well as movie stars and entertainers.

CBS tried to challenge Carson with a late-night show starring Griffin, but nothing stopped Carson and Griffin returned to Westinghouse.

A lifelong crossword puzzle fan, Griffin devised a game show, "Word for Word," in 1963. It faded after one season, then his wife, Julann, suggested another show.

"Julann's idea was a twist on the usual question-answer format of the quiz shows of the Fifties," he wrote in his autobiography "Merv." "Her idea was to give the contestants the answer, and they had to come up with the appropriate question."

"Jeopardy" started in 1964 and "Wheel of Fortune" was begun in 1975.

Mervyn Edward Griffin Jr. was born in San Mateo, south of San Francisco on July 6, 1925, the son of a stockbroker. An aunt, Claudia Robinson, taught him to play piano at age 4, and he soon was staging shows on the back porch.

"Every Saturday I had a show, recruiting all the kids in the block as either stagehands, actors and audience, or sometimes all three," he wrote in his 1980 autobiography. "I was the producer, always the producer."

After studying at San Mateo Junior College and the University of San Francisco, Griffin quit school to apply for a job as pianist at KFRC radio in San Francisco. The station needed a vocalist instead. He auditioned and was hired.

Griffin attracted the interest of RKO studio boss William Dozier and his wife, Joan Fontaine.

At the time, Griffin weighed 235 pounds. "As soon as I walked in their hotel room, I could see their faces fall," he recalled. Shortly afterward, singer Joan Edwards told him: "Your voice is terrific, but the blubber has got to go." Griffin slimmed down, and he spent the rest of his life adding and taking off weight.

Griffin and Julann Elizabeth Wright were married in 1958, and their son, Anthony, was born the following year. They divorced in 1973 because of "irreconcilable differences."

He never remarried.

Besides his son, Griffin is survived by his daughter-in-law, Tricia, and two grandchildren.

The family said an invitation-only funeral Mass will be held at a later date at The Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills.


Associated Press writers Beth Harris and Jeff Wilson contributed to this story.

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