Mervyn Edward "Merv" Griffin, Jr. (July 6, 1925 - August 12, 2007) was a U.S. television host, musician, actor, and media mogul. He began his career as a radio and big band singer who went on to appear in film and on Broadway. From 1965 to 1986 Griffin hosted his own talk show, The Merv Griffin Show, produced by Westinghouse Broadcasting (also known as Group W). He also created the game shows Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune, Click, Ruckus, and Merv Griffin's Crosswords with his own television production companies, Merv Griffin Enterprises and Merv Griffin Entertainment. During his lifetime, Griffin was considered an entertainment business magnate.
Griffin was born into a U.S. Irish family on July 6, 1925, in San Mateo, California to Mervyn Edward Griffin, Sr., a stock-broker, and Rita Elizabeth 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. His abilities as a pianist played a part in his early entry into show business.
He attended San Mateo High School, graduating in 1942, and continued to aid in financing the school. He attended San Mateo Junior College and then the University of San Francisco. He was a member of the international fraternity Tau Kappa Epsilon.
During World War II, Griffin was declared 4F after failing several military physical examinations 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 drafting age limit was twenty-six years and he had just turned twenty-seven.
Griffin started as a singer on radio at nineteen years old, appearing on San Francisco Sketchbook, a nationally syndicated program based at KFRC. Griffin was overweight as an adolescent, 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.
Griffin also had an uncredited role as a radio announcer in the 1953 horror/science fiction classic The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
By 1945, Griffin had earned enough money to form his own record label, Panda Records, which produced Songs by Merv Griffin, the first U.S. album ever recorded on magnetic tape. In 1947, he had a 15-minute Monday-Friday singing program on KHJ in San Francisco.
He became increasingly popular with night-club 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 night-club performances, Griffin was discovered by Doris Day. Day arranged for a screen test at the Warner Bros. Studios for a role in By the Light of the Silvery Moon. Griffin did not 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 (The Boy from Oklahoma and Phantom of the Rue Morgue), but soon became disillusioned with movie-making. Griffin bought his contract back from Warner Bros. and decided to devote his attention to a new medium: television.
In March 2001, Griffin returned to singing with the release of the album It's Like a Dream.
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. Additionally, he also substituted for a week for the vacationing Bill Cullen on The Price Is Right, and also for Bud Collyer on To Tell the Truth. 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. The interview led to a guest-hosting spot on The Tonight Show, then hosted by Paar.
While Johnny Carson finished his ABC contract (he was hosting the afternoon game show Who Do You Trust) before taking over Tonight after Paar in October 1962, Griffin was one of the many guest hosts NBC used. Griffin was considered the most successful of the guest hosts, and was rewarded with his own daytime talk show on NBC in 1962. This live, 55-minute program was not successful however, and was cancelled in 1963.
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, others aired it in prime-time and a few 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 in 1970, 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 philosopher and 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, later the 38th Governor of California, made his talk show debut in the United States on Griffin's talk show in 1974 after moving from Austria.
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.
Griffin'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 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, originally titled What's the Question?, premiered on NBC on March 30, 1964, hosted by Art Fleming, and lasted for 11 years. Griffin wrote the 30-second piece of music heard during the show's Final Jeopardy! Round, and which later became the iconic melody of the theme for the syndicated version of the show hosted by Alex Trebek.
In 1975, NBC canceled Jeopardy! after moving it twice on its daytime schedule, despite having an additional year on its network contract left to fulfill. Griffin produced the show's successor, Wheel of Fortune, which premiered on January 6, 1975. Wheel, with Chuck Woolery as host and Susan Stafford as the hostess, had successful ratings throughout its network run. From December 1975 to January 1976, the show expanded to an hour, in response to the successful 60-minute version of The Price Is Right on CBS.
"Wheel" barely escaped cancellation in 1980, when NBC replaced three of its other game shows with a daytime talk show starring David Letterman; NBC finally cancelled it in 1989, when CBS picked it up for a year (only to return to NBC, when the daytime version was finally cancelled for good in 1991). The show became a phenomenon, when on September 19, 1983, a nighttime version hit the syndication market with Pat Sajak and Vanna White as host and hostess, respectively.
As for Jeopardy!, two different revivals of the show 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. The syndicated versions of both Jeopardy! and Wheel remain on the air today.
In 1990, Griffin had an ambitious but unsuccessful attempt at adapting the venerable board game Monopoly into a game show of the same name. His last game show was a wild game show called Ruckus, which emanated from the Resorts International Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, which he owned at the time. Involving slapstick stunts and a somewhat truncated version of his old Reach for the Stars, the show initially aired locally in New York, with the intent of national syndication early the following year. The Amazing Johnathan left the show after 65 episodes because of a contract dispute and the show was scrapped before it was to be nationally syndicated. A national audience did get a look at it, via reruns that aired for a time on GSN.
Upon his retirement, Griffin sold his production company, Merv Griffin Enterprises, to Columbia Pictures Television, at the time a unit of The Coca-Cola Company, for US$250 million on May 6, 1986, 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 his game 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!, which introduced Ryan Seacrest as its host, and - in association with Wink Martindale - Headline Chasers in 1985.
On May 14, 2003, Griffin was honored with the Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) President's Award at its annual Film and Television Awards ceremony, for having created some of America's best-known game show melodies.
In 2007, Griffin's production company, Merv Griffin Entertainment, began 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. The show lasted only one season, ending on May 16, 2008 in first-run and September 5, 2008 in reruns.
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 eighteenth-century estate once owned by director John Huston, near Craughwell, in County Galway, Ireland. In the 1980s, Griffin purchased the Paradise Island Resort and Casino in the Bahamas for US$400 million from Trump, but he later sold it for just US$125 million. Griffin sold his empire to The Coca-Cola Company for $250 million in 1986, then went on a buying spree of hotels, so that his wealth in 2003 was said to be around $1.2 billion.
Griffin kept many details of his personal and business life private, including his alleged bisexuality, and other claims that he died a closeted homosexual. In 1991, he was sued by Deney Terrio, the host of Dance Fever, another show Mr. Griffin created, alleging sexual harassment. The same year, Brent Plott, a longtime employee who worked as a bodyguard, horse trainer and driver, filed a $200 million palimony lawsuit. Griffin characterized both lawsuits as extortion; ultimately, both suits were dismissed. He consistently evaded answering questions about his sexuality with a characteristic quip. In a 2005 interview with The New York Times, Griffin said: "I tell everybody that I'm a quarter-sexual. I will do anything with anybody for a quarter."
He remained friends with his ex-wife, whom he credited with creating the premise of Jeopardy!. 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 did not 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.
In 1998, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to him.
In 2005, he accepted the degree Doctor of Laws (honoris causa) from the National University of Ireland, Galway.
In 2008, he was posthumously inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.
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, at the age of 82. Griffin is survived by his son, Tony, born in 1959 during Griffin's marriage to Julann Wright from 1958 to 1976, as well as two grandchildren.
Funeral services were held for Griffin on August 17, 2007, at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. The well-attended service included Nancy Reagan; Arnold Schwarzenegger (who gave the eulogy along with Tony Griffin); Maria Shriver; and various actors, television stars, employees, and friends including Sajak, White, Trebek, Dick Van Dyke, Jack Klugman, Dick Van Patten, Ellen DeGeneres and partner Portia de Rossi, Ryan Seacrest, and Catherine Oxenberg and husband Casper Van Dien. Pallbearers included Griffin Group vice-chairman Ron Ward, President Robert Pritchard, and Vice President Michael Eyre, as well as Tony Griffin. 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.
GSN honored Griffin by airing ten-episode marathons of Wheel and Jeopardy! during the weekend of August 18-19, 2007. The Wheel marathon included two episodes with cameo appearances by Griffin: Sajak's departure from the daytime version in 1989 and a 1992-93 episode that ended with Griffin, his band "The MervTones," and 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. His estate was recently sold for $7 million with the money being raised by San Diego-based GNT Financial. GNT is owned by Marcus Carter.
Selected popular songs:
"I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts",
"Never Been Kissed",
"The Charanga" (#69, Pop Charts, 1961),
"Banned in Boston" (#101, Pop Charts, 1961),
"Happy To Know You" (Radio Hit, 1973),
"Think!" (longtime theme music for Jeopardy!),
"Changing Keys" (former longtime theme music for Wheel)
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license