By Ann Farmer
He hadn’t yet reinvented himself as the real estate tycoon that he became. But one-time big band singer, Merv Griffin, was already an established talk show host when he and his wife, Julann, came up with the idea for the hit game show Jeopardy! As it happened, they were flying somewhere. And Griffin, a lifelong aficionado of crossword puzzles, was lamenting the fact that there hadn’t been a successful question and answer show since the hugely popular The $64,000 Question was canceled due to a scandal.
“He was despondent,” says his son, Tony Griffin, describing how his parents began brainstorming game show ideas. “My mom turned to him and said, ‘Why don’t you give them the answers?’ My dad was like, ‘What?’ She said, ‘5,280.’ He said, ‘How many feet in a mile?’ She said, ‘221B Baker Street.’ He said, ‘Where does Sherlock Holmes live?’” With that, they nailed down the concept. However, says Tony, his dad felt there wasn’t enough tension. “He said, ‘How can I get more jeopardy into the show?’ She said, ‘Why not take the money away. That’ll put them in jeopardy.’ He said, ‘Jeopardy! What a great name.’”
NBC approved the idea without a pilot. Beginning in 1964, the show ran for eleven years before becoming the revived and then readapted version that still airs today. TV Guide, in 2001, ranked Jeopardy! number two on its list of “The 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time.” In 1975, Griffin followed it with another game show concept, Wheel of Fortune, which has become the longest running syndicated game show in the history of American television. But for Griffin, who passed away from cancer last year at age eighty-two, those achievements were just two of many in the ever-changing life of the entertainer mogul with the soothing manner and the golden touch.
“He’s all-knowing, doesn’t miss a beat and is simply one of the most astute businessmen I’ve ever seen,” said American Idol host Ryan Seacrest, around the time that Griffin was awarded a 2005 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Television Academy to go with his ten other Emmys. Seacrest once hosted a game show produced by Griffin. He and others who knew Griffin say that under his genial smile lurked a savvy persona who loved to play the gamesman: Whether that was wresting an Atlantic City hotel and casino out of entrepreneur Donald Trump’s grasp or inducing a television guest to say something scintillating.
In fact, after retiring in 1986 from his Emmy-award winning talk show, The Merv Griffin Show, he sold his production company, Merv Griffin Enterprises, to Columbia Pictures Television for $250 million. That same year Forbes named him the richest Hollywood performer in history. Griffin then parlayed his earnings into real estate deals and other investments. He used to say, “If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway,” as he bought and renovated twenty-one hotels over twenty years. His eventual estimated worth was widely considered to be over $1 billion, although he claimed not to know the exact figure. “It would keep me from sleeping at night,” he once joked.
Griffin began his lifelong interest in show business on his family’s back porch in San Mateo, California, where he put on productions with neighborhood kids whom he recruited to play stagehands, audience and actors. He began piano lessons at a young age and, later in life, he composed the famous theme music for Jeopardy! “He wrote it in less than a minute,” insists Tony, confirming that the tune earned over $70 million in royalties.
His professional career was launched in 1944, when the nineteen-year-old auditioned and landed a singing job on a nationally syndicated radio show originating from KFRC in San Francisco. By the end of the first weekend, the show’s name was changed to The Merv Griffin Show. “He had this voice that people loved,” says Tony, describing how fan clubs sprung up, including one presided over by a pigtailed redhead named Carol Burnett.
Griffin’s fans didn’t know that he was chubby at the time. He often told the story of how a girl snuck into the studio and asked him where she could find Merv Griffin. “He said, ‘I’m Merv Griffin.’ She said, ‘You’re Merv Griffin?’ and spun on her heels and walked out. From that day on,” says Tony, “he started losing weight.”
A couple of years later, Griffin accepted an offer from bandleader Freddy Martin to hit the road with his orchestra, performing in places like the famed Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. Griffin loved performing. He said he was more at ease onstage than backstage. It was during that period that his 1950 recording, “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” ascended to the top spot on the Hit Parade.
After one performance gig in Las Vegas, he went out gambling with the other band members. “He woke up the next day and asked his roommate what happened,” relates Tony. “The roommate was joking with him, saying ‘Merv, you lost your entire week’s pay.’” But when, Griffin tried to put his shoe on “he couldn’t get his foot in because it was stuffed with $100 bills.” Tony says his dad used his unexpected winnings to buy the Cadillac that he drove to New York, where he got himself an agent and began hosting TV shows.
But before that happened, he had a brief movie acting stint. He was discovered by Doris Day, who arranged for his first screen test. In 1953, he stirred things up when he shared a passionate kiss in So This Is Love with actress Kathryn Grayson. Quickly, though, he became disillusioned with filmmaking.
His first television opportunity was hosting a CBS Sunday morning religious program with regulars Sidney Poitier and Mahalia Jackson. From 1958 to 1962, he hosted the game show, Play Your Hunch. He also began substituting for Jack Paar on The Tonight Show, which resulted in him getting his own nighttime show. It initially failed in the ratings, but Griffin was reinstated after the network was swamped with letters of protest. The March 1963 issue of Life magazine featured a photo of him buried under an enormous pile of fan mail.
Two years later, he launched a syndicated version of The Merv Griffin Show, with Group W (Westinghouse Broadcasting). But he often found himself butting heads with restrictive network censors and his show was canceled by CBS in 1972. However, Griffin always had a card up his sleeve. The show ended on a Friday, and by Monday, he had returned to syndication through a deal he’d covertly made with rival Metromedia. The new agreement gave him creative control to continue his freewheeling format in a ninety-minute format for daytime, with an eclectic range of guests. Altogether, his program aired in various timeslots for over twenty years and turned “Merv” into a household name.
“What made him lovable in life and bigger than life,” says Pat Sajak, the longtime host of Wheel of Fortune, “was that he was engaged personally. He was genuinely interested in you,” referring to how Griffin would lean in and focus his undivided attention on his guests, fostering an atmosphere of intimacy and candor. “One reason he got such good material is that he put guests at ease and they forgot that they were doing a talk show,” says Sajak. “They’d feel like they were talking one-on-one with Merv. They’d blurt something out. He wasn’t oblivious to that. He’d ask some pretty outrageous questions.”
In fact, Griffin once said, “There was always some personal thing that struck me as the guests made their entrance. I’d watch them walk in and figure out how far I could go with them.”
Griffin invited actors, authors, politicians, entertainers and others, including Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lily Tomlin and George Carlin. He kept his own staunch Republican views close to his chest, but he wasn’t shy about inviting controversy. Philosopher and Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell spoke out against the Vietnam War on his program. As did activist Abbie Hoffman, who came on in 1970 wearing an American flag shirt, which the network blurred.
He plucked some talent, like Whitney Houston and Richard Pryor, from comedy clubs and singing joints. “He’d go down and watch them. If he liked them, he’d bring them on his show,” says Tony, who recalls lunching at a Beverly Hills restaurant a couple of years ago with his dad when they ran into the comedian Jerry Seinfeld. He approached Griffin saying, “You put me on, Merv. You were the first. You were the first.”
One way that Griffin got his guests to loosen up was by keeping the greenroom fully stocked. “It was always helpful when they’d had a cocktail or two,” says Tony, describing how John Wayne once came on the show wearing a stiff tuxedo. During a break, he returned to the greenroom and tossed a few drinks back. One of the staff warned Merv that his shirt collar was unbuttoned and he was becoming inebriated. Griffin’s reaction: “Get him out here.”
Throughout his life, strangers were always coming up to shake Griffin’s hand, request his autograph or have their picture taken with him. “He was so joyous and full of life. You couldn’t get enough of him,” says Vanna White, whom he picked from 200 women to be the hostess on Wheel of Fortune. Griffin felt that she and Sajak “made a nice brother-and-sister routine,” says White, adding that Griffin never complained unless it was to call up and make a comment about the color of her gown.
He also loved a good laugh, announcing on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson that his epitaph would read, “I will not be back right after this message.” His gravestone at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles says exactly that, but it’s not exactly true. The syndicated game show that he was working on from his hospital bed, Merv Griffin’s Crosswords, began airing a month after his burial.