Legendary performer, producer, business mogul became one of the nation's wealthiest
Merv Griffin, the onetime band singer who went on to become an actor, talk-show host, producer, game-show innovator, race-horse owner and, ultimately, one of the wealthiest men in America, died Sunday. Griffin, who succumbed to prostate cancer, was 82 years old.
Griffin’s career spanned sixty years and touched on nearly every aspect of the entertainment business—from nightclubs, music, theater, radio, television and films to hotels, casinos and horse racing.
A stockbroker’s son, Mervyn Edward Griffin, Jr., was born in San Mateo, California, on July 6, 1925. Having learned to play the piano at age four, he began staging neighborhood productions as a child, and continued throughout his adolescence and teens.
After studying at San Mateo Junior College and the University of San Francisco, Griffin left school to apply for a job as pianist at KFRC radio in San Francisco. The station needed a vocalist instead. He auditioned and was hired.
When RKO studio executive William Dozier heard Griffin sing during a visit to the Bay Area, he praised the young crooner’s voice but recommended he lose some of his 200-plus pounds. Griffin took the advice, but dealt with weight fluctuations throughout his life.
In 1948, bandleader Freddy Martin hired Griffin to join him at Los Angeles’ Coconut Grove nightclub at $150 a week. It was with Martin’s band that Griffin enjoyed a hit record with “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Cocoanuts,” a 1949 novelty song sung in a cockney accent.
From the Coconut Grove Stage to
both Big and Small Screens
Griffin segued into movies when actress Doris Day and her producer husband, Marty Melcher, saw Martin’s band performing in Las Vegas, which led to a contract with Warner Bros. for the young singer.
Griffin appeared in the musical By the Light of the Silvery Moon, starring Day and Gordon MacRae, followed by a more substantial role opposite Kathryn Grayson in So This Is Love. Griffin asked out of his contract following a few other insubstantial projects.
Merv Griffin during his talk show years.
A move to New York in 1954, Griffin went to New York led to television work as host of a CBS musical show and a radio slot as host of a musical program on CBS’s radio network.
A spot as host of the popular TV game show Play Your Hunch resulted in appearances as substitute host for Jack Paar on the Tonight show.
Although Johnny Carson was ultimately selected to replace Paar when upon his retirement from Tonight in 1962, Griffin had made such an impression on NBC as a relaxed, engaging talk-show host that the network offered him a daytime version of the show. Reportedly “too sophisticated” for the core daytime audience, the show was canceled.
A few years later Griffin got another shot with the 1965 launch of Westinghouse Broadcasting’s syndicated talk show The Merv Griffin Show.
Griffin’s show was notable for interspersing its standard guest list of entertainers with more highbrow visitors. Among such unlikely individuals: Nobel Prize-winning philosopher Bertrand Russell, renowned cellist Pablo Casals and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer-philosopher-historians Will and Ariel Durant. His show remained on the air until 1986.
The Birth of Jeopardy! and Love of "Hangman"
Make a Mogul of Griffin
In 1963, Griffin conceived a short-live game show, Word for Word. Shortly afterward his wife, Julann, whom he married in 1958 and divorced in 1973, struck upon the idea of a quiz program that inverted the typical format and provided contestants with answers for which they would have to respond with the correct question.
The result was Jeopardy!, which debuted in 1964 and still thrives today.
In 1975, Griffin launched another popular game-show franchise, Wheel of Fortune. He devised the wildly successful program as a variation on the puzzle-solving game known as “Hangman,” which he played with his sister during family road trips.
Today, versions of the two game shows are broadcast internationally in countries, such as Argentina, France, Singapore many more.
The game shows proved to be Griffin’s launching pad into moguldom. The 1986 purchase of the two franchises by Coca-Cola’s Columbia Pictures Television Unit earned him $250 million, and he retained a share of their profits.
Years later, he banked millions more in royalties for composing the catchy Jeopardy! theme, which in recent years has become a popular cell-phone ringtone.
Griffin Buys Beverly Hilton and More with
Game Show Assets
With his game show assets he purchased the Beverly Hilton Hotel for $100 million and refurbished it for $25 million.
Later, for a reported $240 million, he wrangled control of Resorts International, which operated hotels and casinos from Atlantic City to the Caribbean, despite resistance from another business titan, Donald Trump.
In recent years, Griffin made news as the owner of prize Thoroughbred horses. His affinity for horses dated to his boyhood, when he saw the legendary Seabiscuit race on two occasions.
In 2005, one of his horses, Steve Wonderboy, won the $1.5 million Breeder’s Cup Juvenile. Earlier this year, Griffin horse Cobalt Blue was considered a contender for the Kentucky Derby, but ultimately withdrew from the race due to diminished performance in the time period leading up to the race.
Griffin won five Daytime Emmy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement honor in 2005. He was also earned several other Daytime Emmy nominations, as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Griffin, who rarely discussed his personal life, wrote a 2003 autobiography, Merv: Making the Good Life Last.
At the time of his death, the ever-active Griffin was preparing the launch of a new game show, Crosswords, which will premieres in syndication on September 10.
He is survived by his son, Tony, from his marriage to Julann Griffin, as well as a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.