This former big-band singer and longtime TV talk show host created the iconic game shows “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” - leveraging their success into a sprawling business empire that made him a billionaire at his death Sunday at age 82. The question - in the famous format of “Jeopardy!” - is: Who was Merv Griffin?
Griffin died of prostate cancer, his company’s spokeswoman said Sunday. Less than a month ago, Griffin Group/Merv Griffin Entertainment acknowledged he was being treated at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for a recurrence of the condition, which was discovered during a routine checkup.
“I’d rather play `Jeopardy!’ than live it,” that July 19 statement quoted Griffin as saying. “I was ready for a vacation; however, this wasn’t the destination I had in mind.”
Among Griffin’s many business ventures were film and TV production, including the game show “Crosswords,” which is set to have its debut in syndication next month; luxury real estate brokerage and home development; thoroughbred horses and a closed-circuit horse racing network.
But the two smash game shows he created and produced made it all possible.
“Jeopardy!,” first introduced on NBC in 1964, was based on the suggestion of his wife at the time that, in response to the game-show scandals of the 1950s (in which contestants were illicitly given the answers), it would be fun to have players presented with solutions and try to divine the correct question. “Wheel of Fortune,” which began on NBC in 1975, was a reworking of Hangman, a children’s game Griffin and his sister used to play.
The two programs were included in the $250 million sale of Merv Griffin Enterprises in 1986, but the shows (for which he wrote signature music) continued to send him many millions more in royalties. Hits in syndication for 24 years and 23 years, respectively, they are among the two most successful game shows in U.S. history.
Griffin parlayed the cash into his 1987 purchase and subsequent renovation of the Beverly Hilton (which he sold in 2003), launching a run of transactions, buying and selling more than 20 hotels, resorts, casinos and riverboats. Among his acquisitions was Resorts International in Atlantic City, N.J., and the Bahamas, which ignited a celebrated feud with real estate mogul Donald Trump.
Despite the fortune Griffin’s business dealings created and the Emmy-winning talk shows on NBC, CBS and mostly in syndication from 1962 to 1986 that made him a household name, the game shows are his lasting legacy.
And regardless of a three-DVD set of “Merv Griffin Show” highlights released last year, memories of the real thing have largely been supplanted in pop culture consciousness by the bizarre 1997 “Seinfeld” episode in which Kramer salvaged Griffin’s discarded set and staged his own talk show, and Rick Moranis’ cooing parody (“Oooooh! We’ll be right back”) on “SCTV,” which itself is only vaguely recalled today.
The Hollywood Reporter’s Ray Richmond briefly worked as a talent coordinator and segment producer for Griffin in mid-1980s. Among the stories he likes to tell is of the time his old boss was showing someone around his offices.
Pointing to a photograph of himself with a certain civil rights leader, Griffin supposedly said: “And that’s, of course, me with Marty King.”
But that was the clubby kind of atmosphere Griffin sought to create on his show. It was a place where an eclectic mix of guests could feel at home, including Rose Kennedy, Sonny and Cher, Ingrid Bergman, Tom Cruise, Jerry Seinfeld, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Sean Connery, Woody Allen, Bette Davis, Truman Capote, Gypsy Rose, Abbie Hoffman, Robert F. Kennedy, Brigitte Bardot, Norman Mailer and Charles Schulz.
After President Ronald Reagan was wounded in 1981, it was longtime pal Griffin he gave his first on-camera interview.
In many respects, Griffin was a better, earlier version of Larry King, tossing softballs that sometimes led to guests batting back answers into unexpected territory, such as when Richard Burton unexpectedly took a swipe at the space program in the 1970s.
“The least important thing we’ve done ... in the last 100 years is to get a man on the moon,” Burton said. “The idiots who went up there had no knowledge or no idea or no purpose. They were just simply automatons.”
But Griffin also sometimes would dedicate shows to hot topics. And every now and then he himself threw up a zinger, such as the time in 1967 he asked Richard Nixon, then still an undeclared candidate for president after losing runs for the president in 1960 and California governor in 1962: “How can you be elected president? Most people think you’re a loser.”
Nixon broke the awkward silence that followed with: “Guess I’ll just have to win, won’t I?”
Griffin married Julann Wright in 1958, with whom he had a son, Tony. The couple divorced in 1976. Griffin also was a close friend of Eva Gabor, who died a dozen years ago, and former First Lady Nancy Reagan.
A former employee, Brent Plott, filed a multimillion-dollar palimony suit in 1991 against Griffin, who dismissed it as “a shameless attempt to extort money from me.” Also that year, Deney Terrio, host of the Griffin-produced program “Dance Fever,” filed a multimillion-dollar sexual harassment suit against him. Both cases were eventually dismissed.
Whatever shadows these things cast upon Griffin privately, he typically sought to remain bright and cheery publicly. One frequent visitor to Griffin’s talk shows over the years was Orson Welles, who appreciated the room the host gave him to spin yarns.
“Old age is a shipwreck,” Welles told Griffin in their famous, final conversation in 1985.
“But you feel wonderful, don’t you?” Griffin said.
“Oh sure,” Welles said, rolling his eyes.
A couple of hours later, Welles died.
Griffin took a trip down memory lane in a 2006 interview with the Miami Herald, reflecting on other people and places no longer around
“Everything I ever touched is gone. Except `Wheel’ and `Jeopardy!’” he said without bitterness.