Merv Griffin, Popular Talk-Show Host Dies

Merv Griffin, who went from big-band era crooner to fabulously successful TV talk show host before making a fortune as the creator of two of television's most popular game shows and then parlaying that into a billion-dollar hotel empire, died Sunday. He was 82.

Griffin died of prostate cancer, according to a statement from his the family that was released by Marcia Newberger, spokeswoman for The Griffin Group/Merv Griffin Entertainment.

Griffin was recently hospitalized for a recurrence of the disease, which had been treated successfully more than 10 years ago.

Griffin, who created the "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" game shows, began his career as a $100-a-week radio singer in San Francisco, quickly moving on to become the featured vocalist in Freddy Martin's band.

That led to a brief film career, in which he appeared opposite Doris Day and Kathryn Grayson, and later to a successful TV career as host of "The Merv Griffin Show," which aired for more than 20 years.

His biggest financial break, however, came from inventing and producing "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune."

After they became the hottest game shows in television, Griffin sold the rights to them to the Columbia Pictures Television Unit for $250 million, retaining a share of the profits.

He started spreading the sale money around in treasury bonds, stocks and other investments, but quickly became bored.

"I said, `I'm not going to sit around and clip coupons for the rest of my life,"' he recalled in 1989.

"That's when Barron Hilton said, `Merv, do you wanna buy the Beverly Hilton?' I couldn't believe it."

Griffin bought the hotel, home to the Golden Globe awards, for a little more than $100 million and spent $25 million more refurbishing it.

He sold it in 2003.

He also acquired Resorts International, which operated hotels and casinos from Atlantic City, N.J., to the Caribbean.

For a time that touched off a feud with real estate tycoon Donald Trump whose own hotel-casino operations went head-to-head with Griffin's in
Atlantic City.

"My father was a visionary," Griffin's son, Tony Griffin, said in a statement issued Sunday.

"He loved business and continued his many projects and holdings even while hospitalized."

Griffin was working on the first week of production of a new syndicated game show, "Merv Griffin's Crosswords," his son said,
when he entered the hospital a month ago.

In recent years, Griffin also rated frequent mentions in the sports pages of the nation's newspapers for being a successful owner of thoroughbred racehorses.

He had attended the horse races at Bay Meadows in San Mateo as a youngster and saw the legendary Seabiscuit run.

Mervyn Edward Griffin Jr. was born in San Mateo, a suburb south of San Francisco, on July 6, 1925, the son of a stockbroker.

His aunt Claudia Robinson taught him to play piano at age 4, and soon the boy was staging shows on the back porch of the family home.

"Every Saturday I had a show, recruiting all the kids in the block as either stagehands, actors and audience or sometimes all three," he wrote in his 1980 autobiography, "Merv."

"I was the producer, always the producer."

After studying at San Mateo Junior College and the University of San Francisco, Griffin quit school to apply for a job as pianist at San Francisco radio station KFRC.

It turned out the station needed a vocalist, so Griffin auditioned for that job and was hired.

He was billed as "the young romantic voice of radio" and he quickly attracted the interest of RKO studio boss William Dozier, who was visiting San Francisco with his wife, Joan Fontaine.

They called him in for a meeting, but took one look at the singer's 225-pound frame and were disappointed.

"As soon as I walked in their hotel room, I could see their faces fall," Griffin recalled.

Shortly afterward, he said the singer Joan Edwards told him, "Your voice is terrific but the blubber has got to go."

Griffin quickly slimmed down, but he would spend the rest of his life battling to keep his weight in check, gaining and losing pounds.

Martin hired Griffin to join his band at Los Angeles' fabled Coconut Grove in 1948, paying him $150 a week.

The band was playing in Las Vegas when Doris Day and her producer husband, Marty Melcher, were in the audience one night.

They recommended him to Warner Bros., which offered the singer a contract.

After a bit part in "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," starring Day and Gordon MacRae, he won a bigger role opposite Grayson in "So This Is Love."

A few more trivial roles followed before Griffin asked to be let out of his contract.

He headed to New York in 1954, where he appeared in a summer replacement musical show on CBS-TV, a revival of "Finian's Rainbow" and a music show on CBS radio.

He also filled in as a substitute on a pair of TV game shows, where his glibness caught the attention of NBC's "The Tonight Show" and he was asked to sit in when host Jack Paar was absent.

When Paar retired in 1962, Griffin was considered a prime candidate to replace him, but it was Johnny Carson who won the job.

Instead, NBC gave Griffin a daytime version of "Tonight," but he was considered too sophisticated for the era's daytime audience, and it was canceled.

Soon after, the Westinghouse Broadcasting Co. introduced "The Merv Griffin Show" to syndicated television and Griffin had found his niche as a talk show host.

He never underestimated the intelligence of his audience, inviting on the show such figures as the brilliant classical musician Pablo Casals, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer-philosopher-historians Will and Ariel Durant and philosopher Bertrand Russell, along with the usual stable of movie stars and entertainers.

He was also longtime friends with former President Reagan and his wife, Nancy.

"This is heartbreaking, not just for those of us who loved Merv personally, but for everyone around the world who has known Merv
through his music, his television shows and his business," Nancy Reagan said in a statement.

"Ronnie and I knew Merv for more years than I can even remember, more than 50 I'm sure."

When the Reagans returned to California in 1988 after eight years in the White House, Griffin and Barron Hilton set the social tone in Hollywood by throwing a $25,000-a-table homecoming gala for the couple, and Mrs. Reagan said Griffin "was there for me every day after Ronnie died" in 2004.

Griffin was seeking new enterprises for his production company when he began developing game shows in the 1960s.

A lifelong fan of crossword puzzles, he devised a show called "Word for Word," but it failed after one season.

Then his wife suggested another show.

"Julann's idea was a twist on the usual question-answer format of the quiz shows of the '50s," he wrote in "Merv."

"Her idea was to give the contestants the answer and they had to come up with the appropriate question."

"Jeopardy!" became a huge moneymaker, as did "Wheel of Fortune."

Griffin and Julann Elizabeth Wright were married in 1958 and their son, Tony, was born the following year.

They divorced in 1973.

"It was a pivotal time in my career, one of uncertainty and constant doubt," he wrote in his autobiography.

"So much attention was being focused on me that my marriage felt the
strain."

Griffin never remarried, but for several years he was frequently seen in the company of actress Eva Gabor, who died in 1995.

"I'm very upset at the news. He was a very close friend of ours, a good friend of mine and a good friend of Eva's," Gabor's sister, Zsa Zsa Gabor, told The Associated Press by phone Sunday.

"He was just a wonderful, wonderful man."

After Griffin purchased the Beverly Hilton hotel he went on to seek other business challenges.

Resorts International, with its string of hotel-casinos that included the idyllic Paradise Island in the Bahamas, seemed an ideal opportunity, but Trump had amassed 80 per cent of the voting stock and was moving to take the company private.

The financial world scoffed when a former singer and TV personality announced his intention to outbid the ace dealmaker, but Griffin insisted on meeting with Trump in New York.

He later described their encounter in a 1988 interview: "I was led into something we don't see in California, a glass penthouse. We shook hands, and he walked me over to the window and looked down at the Plaza Hotel. He said, `There it is. I own it. It's my greatest acquisition.'

"We started talking about the number of the rooms in the Plaza, and I said very quietly, `That certainly will house the lawyers it will take to fight me.' It broke the ice- boom!- like that.

"He said, `Great, let's sit down.' "

Their relationship grew more acrimonious as the maneuvering continued, but Griffin eventually prevailed, acquiring Resorts for
$240 million.

His far-flung holdings still didn't satisfy Griffin's creative urge, and in the late 1990s he continued devising new enterprises.

Among them was a company that staged gala parties in Hollywood
and New York, a new quiz show for teenagers, and a big-band
ballroom at the Beverly Hilton.

Then there was his foray into thoroughbred horse racing. He owned the Griffin Ranch in La Quinta, where he kept more than 50 horoughbreds.

His colt Stevie Wonderboy, named for entertainer Stevie Wonder, won the $1.5 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile in 2005.

"There's a lot of excitement winning Emmy Awards and all that stuff," Griffin said at the time.

"Then there's the fighting with Donald Trump, which is fun, but this is extraordinary."

Stevie Wonderboy was also considered a top prospect for the 2006
Kentucky Derby but suffered an injury and didn't race there.

Griffin's Derby hopes were dashed again this year when he made a
last-minute decision not to enter Cobalt Blue in America's most famous race because of the horse's sub-par showings leading up to the event.

"I feel like the Susan Lucci of the Derby," Griffin, referring to the soap-opera actress who was passed over for so many Emmys, told The Associated Press last May.

"But that's not my total goal," he added. "I just love the animals and have for years."

Besides his son, Griffin is survived by daughter-in-law, Tricia, and grandchildren Farah and Donovan.

The family said an invitation-only funeral mass will be held at a later date at The Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations be made to the Young Musicians Foundation, of which Griffin was chairman of the board.


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