Mervyn Edward "Merv" Griffin, Jr. (July 6, 1925 – August 12, 2007) was an American television host, singer, and media mogul. He began his career as a radio and big band singer who went on to appear in movies and on Broadway. During the 1960s, Griffin hosted his own talk show, The Merv Griffin Show, and created the game shows Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune, Click, and Merv Griffin's Crosswords. He is considered an entertainment business magnate.
Griffin was born into a very poor Irish American family on July 6, 1925 in San Mateo, California to Mervyn Griffin Sr., a stock broker and Rita Griffin (née Robinson), a homemaker. Raised as a Roman Catholic, Griffin started singing in his church choir as a boy, and by his teens was earning extra money as a church organist. This is one of the reasons he got into show business early; he was considered a piano prodigy. He attended San Mateo High School, class of 1942, and continued to aid in financing the school.
During World War II, Merv was declared 4F after failing several military physical exams due to having a slight heart murmur. Drafted for service during the Korean War, he was then deemed fit for service, but was considered too old as the draft limit was 26 and he had just turned 27.
Singing at 19
Griffin started as a singer on radio at age 19, appearing on San Francisco Sketchbook, a nationally syndicated program based at KFRC. Griffin was overweight as a teenager, which disappointed his radio fans. Embarrassed by their reaction, Griffin resolved to lose weight and change his image, losing 80 pounds in four months. Freddy Martin heard him on the radio show and asked Griffin to tour with his orchestra, which he did for four years.
He also had an uncredited role as a radio announcer in the 1953 horror/science fiction classic The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
Within a year, Griffin earned enough to form his own record label, Panda Records, which produced Songs by Merv Griffin, the first American album ever recorded on magnetic tape. He became increasingly popular with nightclub audiences, and his fame soared among the general public with his 1950 hit I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts. The song reached the number one spot on the Hit Parade and sold three million copies.
At one of his nightclub performances, Griffin was discovered by Doris Day. Day arranged for a screen test at Warner Brothers Studios for a role in By the Light of the Silvery Moon. Griffin didn't get the part, but the screen test led to supporting roles in other musical films such as So This is Love in 1953. The film caused a minor controversy when Griffin shared an open-mouthed kiss with Kathryn Grayson. The kiss was a first in Hollywood film history since the introduction of the Production Code in 1934.
Griffin would go on to film more pictures, namely, The Boy from Oklahoma and Phantom of the Rue Morgue, but soon became disillusioned with movie making. Griffin bought his contract back from Warner Brothers and decided to focus on a new medium: television.
Game show host
From 1958 to 1962, Griffin hosted a game show produced by Mark Goodson and Bill Todman called Play Your Hunch. The show appeared on all three networks, but primarily on NBC. He also hosted a prime time game show for ABC called Keep Talking. In 1963, NBC offered him the opportunity to host a new game show, Word for Word, which Griffin produced. He also produced Let's Play Post Office for NBC in 1965; Reach for the Stars for NBC in 1967; and One in a Million for ABC in 1967.
Talk show host
Griffin scored a coup when Jack Paar accidentally emerged onto the set of Play Your Hunch during a live broadcast, and Griffin got him to stay for a spontaneous interview. He parlayed that into a guest-hosting spot on The Tonight Show, then hosted by Paar, and his own daytime talk show on NBC in 1962.
By the mid 1960s, many other big band singers (such as Dinah Shore and Mike Douglas), had reinvented themselves as talk show hosts. In 1965, Griffin launched a syndicated talk show for Group W (Westinghouse Broadcasting): The Merv Griffin Show. The show aired in a variety of time slots throughout North America; many stations ran it in the daytime, some broadcast it opposite Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show. Griffin's announcer/sidekick was the veteran British character actor Arthur Treacher, who had been his mentor. After Treacher left the show, Griffin would do the announcing himself, and walk on stage with the phrase: "And now..., here I come!" According to an obituary article on August 24, 2007 in Entertainment Weekly, The Merv Griffin Show was on the air for 21 years and won eleven Emmy Awards during its run.
Griffin was not shy about tackling controversial subjects, especially the Vietnam War. The guests on the Westinghouse show were an eclectic mix of entertainers, authors, politicians, and "personality" performers like Zsa Zsa Gabor. Griffin also booked controversial guests like George Carlin, Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, Norman Mailer, and Bertrand Russell. Griffin received critical acclaim for booking such guests, but was also widely criticized for it. When anti-war activist Bertrand Russell used Griffin's show to condemn the war in Vietnam, Griffin was criticized for letting Russell have his say. Arnold Schwarzenegger made his talk show debut in the United States on Griffin's talk show in 1974 after moving from Austria and becoming a bodybuilder.
Griffin dedicated two shows to the topic of Transcendental Meditation and its founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, one in 1975, the other in 1977. Griffin himself was an enthusiastic student of the practice.
Griffin would also frequently chat with audience members. One regular audience member, Lillian Miller, would become a fixture on Griffin's program throughout its run.
Merv's best friend since the sixth grade, Robert (Bob) Murphy, was the producer of The Merv Griffin Show, and eventually became president of Merv Griffin Enterprises.
CBS gave Griffin a late-night show opposite Johnny Carson in 1969, a move which proved disastrous. The network was uncomfortable with the guests Griffin wanted, who often spoke out against the Vietnam War and on other taboo topics. When political activist Abbie Hoffman was Griffin's guest in April 1970, CBS blurred the video of Hoffman so viewers at home would not see his trademark American flag pattern shirt even though other guests had worn the same shirt in the past, uncensored. Griffin disliked the censorship imposed by CBS and complained.
Sensing that his time at CBS was ending, and tired of the restrictions imposed by the network, Griffin secretly signed a contract with rival company Metromedia. The contract with Metromedia would give him a syndicated daytime talk show deal as soon as CBS canceled Griffin's show. Within a few months, Griffin was fired by CBS. His new show began the following Monday and ran until the mid 1980s. By 1986, Griffin was ready to retire and ended his talk show run. Due to profits from his highly successful game shows, Griffin had become one of the world's wealthiest entertainers.
Game show creator
Griffin created and produced the successful television game show Jeopardy! in 1964; in an Associated Press profile released right before the show premiered, Griffin talked about the show's origins:
My wife Julann just came up with the idea one day when we were in a plane bringing us back to New York from Duluth. I was mulling over game show ideas, when she noted that there had not been a successful 'question and answer' game on the air since the quiz show scandals. Why not do a switch, and give the answers to the contestant and let them come up with the question.
She fired a couple of answers to me: '5,280' and the question of course was how many feet in a mile. Another was '79 Wistful Vista.' That was Fibber and Mollie McGee's address. I loved the idea, went straight to NBC with the idea, and they bought it without even looking at a pilot show.
The show premiered on NBC on March 30, 1964, hosted by Art Fleming, and lasted for 11 years. Merv wrote the 30-second piece of music heard during the show's Final Jeopardy! Round, and which later became the melody of the theme for the show in the Alex Trebek era.
In 1975, NBC canceled Jeopardy! after moving it twice on their daytime schedule and despite having an additional year on its network contract left to fulfill. Griffin produced the show's successor, Wheel of Fortune. Premiering on January 6, 1975, Wheel became a modest hit on daytime television with Chuck Woolery and Susan Stafford as host and hostess, which later became a phenomenon when on September 12, 1983, Wheel of Fortune hit the syndication market with Pat Sajak and Vanna White as hosts. Two different revivals of Jeopardy! would be produced: one on NBC that ran for five months in late 1978/early 1979 with Art Fleming returning as host, and the other airing in first-run syndication beginning on September 10, 1984, starring Alex Trebek. Both Jeopardy! and the night version of Wheel of Fortune remain on the air today in syndication.
In 1990, Griffin had an ambitious but unsuccessful attempt at adapting the venerable board game Monopoly into a game show of the same name.
Upon his retirement, Griffin sold his production company, Merv Griffin Enterprises, to Columbia Pictures Television unit for US$250 million, the largest acquisition of an entertainment company owned by a single individual at that time. Following the sale, Forbes named him the richest Hollywood performer in history. He retained the title of creator of both shows.
The two powerhouses spun off numerous programs, and Griffin often would sign on as a creative consultant. The spin-offs included Wheel 2000 on CBS in 1997 and the short lived Jep! on GSN in 1998, both for children; Rock &Roll Jeopardy! on VH1 in 1998 for purveyors of pop music trivia; a teen-oriented game called Click! and in association with Wink Martindale, Headline Chasers in 1985.
In 2007, Griffin's production company, Merv Griffin Entertainment, began pre-production on a new syndicated game show Merv Griffin's Crosswords (originally titled Let's Play Crosswords and Let's Do Crosswords). The show taped in Los Angeles after initial reports that it would be produced at WMAQ-TV in Chicago. The show was produced in association with Program Partners and the William Morris Agency and began airing September 10, 2007. NBC-owned-and-operated stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Dallas carried the show, with many stations airing two episodes per day.
Griffin ventured into real estate, purchasing the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills. He also purchased Resorts Hotel and Casino, formerly Chalfonte-Haddon Hall Hotel in Atlantic City from Donald Trump in 1988. An active desert resident, he was a supporter of the La Quinta Arts Festival and the owner of the Merv Griffin Givenchy Resort & Spa in Palm Springs, now The Parker. He owned a ranch near La Quinta, California where he raised thoroughbred racehorses, as well as St. Clerans Manor, a boutique hotel, set in an eighteen century estate once owned by director John Huston, near Craughwell, County Galway Galway, Ireland. In the 1980s, Griffin purchased Paradise Island in the Bahamas for US$400 million from Donald Trump, but he later sold it for just US$125 million. Merv Griffin sold his empire for $250 million to Coca-Cola in 1986, he then went on a buying spree of hotels and his wealth in 2003 was said to be around $1.2 billion.
In March 2001, Griffin returned to singing with the release of the album It's Like a Dream.
Griffin kept many details of his personal and business life private. On being wealthy he said that "if people know you're rich they don't talk with you when you walk down the street." He kept his wealth as an open secret amassing media outlets, hotels and casinos with a net worth widely estimated at more than a billion dollars. Griffin stated he didn't really know his worth because it “would keep me from sleeping at night.” He and former First Lady Nancy Reagan exchanged birthday greetings each July 6, for they shared the same birthday. Griffin was also an honorary pallbearer at the funeral of President Ronald Reagan in 2004. He was friends with both of the Reagans for many years.
“ I tell everybody that I’m a quatre-sexual. I will do anything with anybody for a quarter.”
—Merv Griffin, The New York Times, May 26, 2005
Though remaining friends with his ex-wife, whom he credited with creating the premise of Jeopardy!, questions that he was either bisexual or gay persisted. Two same-sex palimony and sexual harassment lawsuits in 1991 brought questions about Griffin's sexuality to national prominence. In 1991, Griffin was hit with both a $200 million palimony lawsuit by former "secretary/driver/horse-trainer/bodyguard" Brent Plott, and an $11.3-million sexual harassment lawsuit from Dance Fever host Deney Terrio; both suits were ultimately dismissed with prejudice (the Plott claim after Griffin filed a countersuit). A 2006 article in Rolling Stone magazine by John Colapinto stated:
“Merv does not refute the underlying implication in both cases: that he is gay. Nor does he admit to it. Instead, he mentions the high-profile relationship that he began with actress Eva Gabor at the time of his legal troubles. They were photographed everywhere: Atlantic City, La Quinta, Hollywood premieres. Griffin says that they discussed marriage, and he parries any direct questions about his sexual orientation. "You're asking an eighty-year-old man about his sexuality right now!", he cries. "Get a life!”
Merv Griffin: a Life in the Closet, published in 2009, is a tell-all book from Darwin Porter.
Illness and death
Griffin's prostate cancer, treated originally in 1996, returned and he was admitted to Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where his condition deteriorated, leading to his death on August 12, 2007. Griffin is survived by his son, Tony, born in 1959 during Griffin's marriage to Julann Wright from 1958 to 1976. He is also survived by two grandchildren.
Funeral services were held for Griffin in on August 17, 2007 at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. The well attended service included former First Lady and longtime friend Nancy Reagan, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (who gave the eulogy along with Griffin's son Tony), Maria Shriver, actors, television stars, employees and friends including Pat Sajak, Vanna White, Alex Trebek, Dick Van Dyke, Jack Klugman, Dick Van Patten, Ellen DeGeneres and partner Portia di Rossi, Ryan Seacrest, Catherine Oxenberg and husband Casper Van Dien. Pallbearers included Ron Ward, Vice Chairman of the Griffin Group, Griffin Group President Robert Pritchard, Griffin Group Vice President Michael Eyre, and Griffin's son Tony. His 7-year-old grandson Donovan Mervyn was an honorary pallbearer as was Nancy Reagan. His 12-year-old granddaughter Farah gave a reading. A post-burial reception was held at the Beverly Hilton, a property owned by Griffin from 1987 to 2003. He was buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery and his headstone epitaph (even though in his book "Merv," written with David Bender in 2003, states it would be "Stay Tuned") reads "I will not be right back after this message," an epitaph Griffin announced on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
Game Show Network (GSN) honored Griffin by airing ten-episode marathons of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! during the weekend of August 18–19, 2007. The Wheel marathon included two episodes with cameo appearances by Griffin: Pat Sajak's departure from the daytime version in 1989 and a 1992–93 episode that ended with Griffin, the MervTones, and Vanna White singing at a dinner club in Orlando, Florida. The Jeopardy! marathon consisted of a rerun of the Jeopardy! Million Dollar Masters Tournament from 2002.
Selected popular songs
"I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts"
"Never Been Kissed"
"The Charanga" (#69, Pop Charts, 1961)
"Happy To Know You" (Radio Hit, 1973)
"Jeopardy! theme music"
"Changing Keys" (the Wheel of Fortune Theme)
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2.^ "Spokeswoman: 'Jeopardy' inventor Merv Griffin dies at 82". Associated Press. 2007-08-12. http://www.cnn.com/2007/SHOWBIZ/TV/08/12/griffin.obit.ap/index.html. Retrieved 2007-08-12.
3.^ "Merv Griffin". The Notable Names Database. Soylent Communications. http://www.nndb.com/people/418/000022352. Retrieved 2007-09-09.
5.^ All Movie Guide. "Merv Griffin Filmography". Fandango. http://www.fandango.com/mervgriffin/filmography/p+28806. Retrieved 2007-08-12.
6.^ Entertainment Legend Merv Griffin Dies At 82, from Billboard (magazine)
7.^ The Griffin Group; Wikipedia; IMDB. "TV Land Remembers Merv Griffin". TV Land. http://www.tvland.com/obits/mervgriffin. Retrieved 2007-09-09.
8.^ Richard Natale (12 August 2007). "Hollywood legend Merv Griffin dies". Variety. http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117970093.html?categoryid=2492&cs=1. Retrieved 2007-09-09.
9.^ Erik Pedersen (13 August 2007). "'Visionary' H'wood host, tycoon Merv Griffin dies". The Hollywood Reporter. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hr/content_display/television/news/e3i11da93653366e6b325a6577b8af9fe8f. Retrieved 2007-09-09.
10.^ "Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; founded Transcendental Meditation movement". Los Angeles Times. February 6, 2008. http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-maharishi6feb06,1,4208394.story. Retrieved May 12, 2010.
11.^ John Colapinto. "Dear Mister Fantasy". Rolling Stone. http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/10432607/dear_mister_fantasy/. Retrieved 2007-07-19.
12.^ "Gaming Hall of Fame Award". Fine Awards. http://www.fineawards.com/custom-gaming-hall.htm. Retrieved 2007-09-09.
13.^ Severo, Richard; Wyatt, Edward (August 13, 2007). "Merv Griffin, Television Innovator, Dies at 82". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/13/arts/television/13griffin.html. Retrieved May 12, 2010.
14.^ Gerhart, Ann (11 June 2004). "A Widow's Heartfelt Farewell". The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2004/06/11/AR2005033113573.html. Retrieved 2007-11-20.
15.^ In the Chatting Olympics, Look for Merv Griffin, a May 26, 2005 article from The New York Times
16.^ "Questioning Merv’s Sexuality". Edge Boston. 2007-08-12. http://www.edgeboston.com/index.php?ch=entertainment&sc=celebrities&sc2=news&sc3=&id=22308. Retrieved 2007-10-16.
17.^ "Sensational Secrets - Former gay Hollywood insider spills dirt on Merv Griffin in new book", The Washington Blade, 1 May 2009.
18.^ "Merv Griffin in grave condition". The Desert Sun. azcentral.com. 9 August 2007. http://www.azcentral.com/ent/celeb/articles/0809merv0809.html. Retrieved 2007-09-09.
19.^ David Zurawik (12 August 2007). "Merv Griffin dies at age 82". Baltimore Sun. http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/bal-griffinobit0812,0,2231857.story. Retrieved 2007-08-12.
20.^ Kakie Urch; Bruce Fessier; Erica Solvig (12 August 2007). "Remembering Merv Griffin, 1925-2007". The Desert Sun. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/television/2003833182_webgriffin12.html. Retrieved 2007-09-09.
21.^ "Hundreds Pay Final Respects To Merv Griffin". KNBC Los Angeles. 17 August 2007. http://www.knbc.com/entertainment/13917581/detail.html?dl=mainclick. Retrieved 2007-09-09.