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Tom Shales



Merv Griffin Took Delight in What He Did

August 19, 2007 9:00 PM

Some people can give a good time merely by having a good time -- or appearing to. Merv Griffin had that ability. He seemed to take tremendous delight in whatever he did, and in doing it well, and those qualities traveled undiminished through the camera and the wires and the ionosphere and right into your living room, which is where most people watched TV during the era that Griffin thrived.

He wasn't an intellectual like Dick Cavett or a brilliant ad-libber like Johnny Carson, but as a host and interviewer Griffin had terrific instincts. He could get probing answers without asking particularly probing questions; thus on the air, he never came across as confrontational or even controversial, and yet guests said things on the various incarnations of "The Merv Griffin Show" that they probably wouldn't have said anywhere else. At least not anywhere else in public.

Griffin's death, at the age of 82, came several years after his career as a TV star had ended, yet he obviously remained a presence -- largely through his long-running game shows "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" A 25-year-old friend who never saw Merv Griffin perform instantly recognized the name, because he'd heard it innumerable times in credits at the ends of those shows.

And yet those of us who remember Griffin as talk-show host -- that uniquely televisionary occupation -- can recall many a merry night in his company and the company of his crazy gab-bag of guests, from the brilliant and celebrated to the amusingly oddball. Griffin had an ego, a requirement of the business, but he'd willingly and even eagerly let himself be the butt of jokes or ridicule if it made the show more fun to watch. He could separate the character of Merv Griffin that he played on TV from the real Merv Griffin, known in the industry as a tough and keenly competitive businessman.

"Merv was a very intelligent guy," says Roger Ailes, the Fox Broadcasting chief who knows as much about television -- especially nonfiction television -- as anybody around. Ailes didn't produce Griffin's show; he was allied with daytime talk star Mike Douglas. But he knew Griffin and admired him.

"Mike was the happy Irishman who loved to play golf. He didn't focus all that much on the show," Ailes recalls. "Merv was really concerned with the program on every level. He sometimes asked a dumb question on the show, but he was really very, very smart about it. He had a way of getting a lot out of people. He could ask, ‘What did you do last night?' and get people to open up completely."

On his own talk show Thursday, Regis Philbin spoke of Griffin in the present tense, as if he were still around. "It's always fun to see him," Philbin said. "He always has a million stories."

Both Ailes and Philbin also are mourning industry giant Chet Collier, who ran Westinghouse when Griffin, Douglas, Ailes and many other bright lights worked in a kind of golden era for original syndication. Collier died Wednesday; Ailes, whom Collier hired when Ailes was 22, continued to use him as a consultant into Collier's 70s.

Griffin's on-air persona, that of an absolutely unquenchable enthusiast, prompted the occasional lampoon -- most notably the inspired (and presumably affectionate) impersonation that Rick Moranis did several times on the old "SCTV" comedy show, in its syndicated and network form. A typical sketch would be structured as a Griffin promo, with Moranis opening at the piano and singing a song like the disco hit "On the Radio," totally at odds with Griffin's big-band background.

Then he'd ballyhoo the next exciting edition of "The Merv Griffin Show." In one promo, the promised guests include Liberace, Loni Anderson, Lou "Incredible Hulk" Ferrigno -- and "an inside look at the fascinating world of terrorism. Yasser Arafat is with us!" It was a given that all the male guests would be asked to display the inside of their jackets ("Show us your lining!"), so even the infamous Arafat, as played by Joe Flaherty, opened his coat, eager to conform to the demands of show biz.

When I watched that sketch on DVD again recently, it made me laugh, yes, but it also made me miss Merv. There was nobody like him on television then and there is absolutely nobody like him now. His something-for-everybody approach to TV has been rendered extinct by the 500-channel universe, the multi-set home, and perhaps most of all by the rise of the omnivorous Internet.

And yet, within hours of his death, Griffin was a star there, too. Clip after clip from his old talk shows resurfaced on YouTube and other sites. There was Merv looking alive and more than just well; he was ebullient, elated, vastly amused and hugely amusing.

The simple word for his particular gift is showmanship. Simple or not, it remains one of the rarest gifts of all.

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