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One of the most successful men in 20th century entertainment, Merv Griffin parlayed a moderately popular career as a big band singer and game show frontman into a long-running stint as the host of his own talk show, and later, as the creator of some of American television's best loved game shows, including "Wheel of Fortune" (syndicated, 1972- ) and "Jeopardy!" (NBC/syndicated, 1964- ). Griffin's business acumen and larger-than-life personality weathered numerous ups (his wildly profitable real estate ventures) and downs (two palimony suits, which called his sexuality into question). By the time of his death from prostate cancer in 2007, he was one of Hollywood's most enduring figures.Born Mervyn Edward Griffin, Jr., in San Mateo, CA, on July 6, 1925, Griffin's father was a stockbroker, imparting the value of earning a dollar on his son. By the age of four, Griffin was drawing pay by selling newspapers door to door, but at the same time, he was indulging an irrepressible streak of showmanship by playing the piano and publishing his own two-cent newspaper, which recounted the day-to-day events of his neighborhood. Later, Griffin took up advanced study of classical piano, and relocated to San Francisco...
One of the most successful men in 20th century entertainment, Merv Griffin parlayed a moderately popular career as a big band singer and game show frontman into a long-running stint as the host of his own talk show, and later, as the creator of some of American television's best loved game shows, including "Wheel of Fortune" (syndicated, 1972- ) and "Jeopardy!" (NBC/syndicated, 1964- ). Griffin's business acumen and larger-than-life personality weathered numerous ups (his wildly profitable real estate ventures) and downs (two palimony suits, which called his sexuality into question). By the time of his death from prostate cancer in 2007, he was one of Hollywood's most enduring figures.
Born Mervyn Edward Griffin, Jr., in San Mateo, CA, on July 6, 1925, Griffin's father was a stockbroker, imparting the value of earning a dollar on his son. By the age of four, Griffin was drawing pay by selling newspapers door to door, but at the same time, he was indulging an irrepressible streak of showmanship by playing the piano and publishing his own two-cent newspaper, which recounted the day-to-day events of his neighborhood. Later, Griffin took up advanced study of classical piano, and relocated to San Francisco to pursue this end.
According to his biography, Merv: Making the Good Life Last, Griffin experienced an epiphany on his 18th birthday in 1943 that convinced him of his future - and lasting fame. The vision got off to a good start a year later when he began singing professionally on "San Francisco Sketchbook," a nationally syndicated radio program broadcast from San Francisco radio station KFRC. His popularity on the show was so great, that the program was redubbed "The Merv Griffin Show" just two days after his debut, paving the way for the 19-year-old entertainer to earn over $1000 a week. Ever the entrepreneur, Griffin launched his own record label, Panda Records, in 1946, and released Songs By Merv Griffin - the first album produced on magnetic tape.
Two years later, Griffin's appeal caught the attention of big band leader Freddy Martin, who tapped him to be the vocalist on his next tour. Though the job required Griffin to take a substantial cut in weekly pay - down to $150 a week) - the tour broadened his appeal on a national level. Over the next two years, Griffin became a very popular nightclub performer - he was, reportedly, Howard Hughes' favorite singer - and his residency at the legendary Cocoanut Grove club in Hollywood was one of the hottest tickets in that town. And in 1950, Griffin recorded a novelty song, "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts," that went to number one on the charts and became his theme song.
Among his numerous fans was singer-turned-actress Doris Day, who got Griffin a screen test at Warner Bros. From 1952-53, Griffin appeared in small or supporting roles in a string of mostly unmemorable films; save for "So this is Love" (1953). The picture stirred up a small storm cloud of controversy for Griffin's open-mouthed kiss with co-star Kathryn Grayson - the first ever shown in theaters since the introduction of the Production Code in 1934.
But Griffin would find lasting fame in a medium that was barely out of its infancy in the early 1950s - television. After a stint on Broadway in "Finian's Rainbow" brought him back to New York, he became an in-demand performer on such early variety programs as "The Arthur Murray Party" (NBC/CBS/ABC/Dumont, 1950-1960) and "The Jack Paar Tonight Show" (NBC, 1957-1962), and his popularity on these shows convinced him to change careers and focus on becoming a television host. His first stint came as the emcee for a new game show called "Play Your Hunch" (NBC/CBS/ABC, 1958-1963). Among his guests on the show was Jack Paar, who accidentally wandered onto the set and gave Griffin an impromptu interview. Griffin's ease at conducting a celebrity chat was not lost on the network, which gave him a guest shot at substitute host on Paar's "Tonight Show."
The considerable spike in ratings generated by Griffin's appearance convinced them to grant him his own daytime talk show. This debut edition of "The Merv Griffin Show" (NBC, 1962-63) fared poorly in ratings, but its cancellation sparked a firestorm of protest from its viewers, so Griffin was immediately brought back to host a new game show - "Word for Word," which he also produced.
The following year saw the debut of Griffin's first smash hit game show, "Jeopardy!"; Griffin also composed the show's iconic theme song, "Think," which was originally a lullaby for his son Tony (born from Griffin's marriage to Julann Wright in 1958; the couple divorced in 1976). It was quickly followed by several more game shows, none of which matched "Jeopardy!" in terms of appeal. Meanwhile, Griffin relaunched "The Merv Griffin Show" for Westinghouse Broadcasting's Group W. The syndicated program, which aired in different time slots across the country, was a substantial hit, and introduced viewers to a wide variety of entertainers, authors, musical acts and politicians, as well as the curious Lillian Miller (a.k.a. Mrs. Miller), an elderly woman who frequently appeared in talk show audiences and conversed with the hosts. Mrs. Miller appeared on Griffin's shows until he retired from hosting in 1986.
Griffin was then tapped by CBS to offer direct competition with Johnny Carson and "The Tonight Show" (NBC, 1962-1999), and in 1969, "The Merv Griffin Show" debuted in the 11:30 p.m. slot opposite Carson. But despite bigger-name guests -including Richard M. Nixon and Martin Luther King, Jr. - the new show was plagued with problems between Griffin and his producers and the network executives. Among their objections was the age of Griffin's announcer and mentor - the venerable actor Arthur Treacher - and pressure to reduce the number of guests who spoke out against the Vietnam War (most famously, Abbie Hoffman, whose American flag shirt was pixilated by the network when he appeared on the show in 1970).
By 1972, Griffin was done with the CBS deal - he had not unseated Carson, and the dealings with the network had grown tiresome. He signed a syndication deal with Metromedia and moved back to daytime in 1972. "The Merv Griffin Show," which was filmed at Caesar's Palace for most of the 1970s and early 1980s, returned to its former seat of popularity until 1986, when he retired from broadcasting. Over the course of its run, Griffin netted some 11 Emmys for the show, including three as Outstanding Host.
In 1975, Griffin created his second pop culture touchstone with "Wheel of Fortune" (NBC, 1975-1981; syndicated, 1981- ). The show, hosted by Chuck Woolery, was a modest hit in its daytime inception, but once Griffin revived the show in 1981 for the syndicated nighttime market, and tapped Pat Sajak and an unknown model named Vanna White to host the program, it became a ratings powerhouse. Griffin struck again in 1984 when he revived "Jeopardy!" for a syndicated audience. Hosted by Alex Trebek, it remained on the air long after Griffin's death in 2007, as did "Wheel."
In 1986, following his retirement, Griffin sold his production company, Merv Griffin Enterprises, to Columbia Pictures Television for $250 million. The deal, which at the time made record books as the largest acquisition of an entertainment company from an individual, also allowed Griffin to retain executive producer status on "Wheel" and "Jeopardy," and serve as creative consultant for the numerous spin-off games, including "Wheel 2000" (CBS, 1997) and the popular "Rock & Roll Jeopardy" (VH1, 1998-2001). When the dust cleared at the end of the deal, Forbes magazine named Griffin the richest performer in Hollywood history.
A quiet retirement was not in the cards for Griffin, who moved into real estate ventures with the Griffin Group, which he established in 1987. Among its numerous acquisitions included the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California, as well as six casino resorts, 17 radio stations, 22 hotels, closed-circuit coverage of national horse racing, a real estate brokerage firm, and the 2005 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Winner. Griffin also netted countless tributes from the entertainment industry during this period, including the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame Award in 1994, the President's Award from the BMI Film and Television Awards in 2003, and the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 from the Daytime Emmys. And in 2001, he released his first album in decades - It's like a Dream. Griffin continued to produce television programs until 2006, including the exceptionally popular "Lisa Williams: Life Among the Dead" (Lifetime, 2006-07) reality series.
Not everything during this period was golden for Griffin; a pair of palimony suits in 1991 from a horse trainer and the former host of Griffin's syndicated disco competition series "Dance Fever" (1979-1987) brought to light the long-standing (and unsubstantiated rumor) that Griffith was gay. Both suits were dismissed, and though Griffin would maintain a long-standing personal relationship with actress/personality Eva Gabor, the allegations remained until after his death, when The Hollywood Reporter published a report stating that Griffin was unequivocally gay. The article was later altered due to protests from his many friends and business associates.
In July of 2007, Griffin was admitted to Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles for prostate cancer, which he had been treated for in 1996. His condition quickly worsened, and Griffin died on Aug. 12, 2007. His funeral in Beverly Hills was attended by numerous entertainment and political figures, including Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, former First Lady Nancy Reagan (whom Griffin had aided during the final years of Ronald Reagan's struggle with Alzheimer's), and son Tony, who spoke movingly of his father. Griffin was buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, but true to form, he remained busy long after his death. His last game show venture, "Merv Griffin's Crosswords," (NBC, 2007-08) was slated for broadcast later that fall.
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