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Merv Griffin Had the Personal Touch

Aug 19, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Merv Griffin was my grand-mother’s favorite talk show host. Not Johnny Carson. And not Mike Douglas. And later, not Phil Donahue or Oprah. That fact speaks volumes more about Mr. Griffin’s popularity than about my grandmother.
It wasn’t that Mr. Griffin was folksy, particularly. But he exuded a certain familiarity with his celebrity guests because he hung out with them and enjoyed doing so. Unlike the notoriously loner sensibility that was Mr. Carson, which allowed him to be an observer with rapier wit, Merv and celebrity guest — fill in the name, from John Wayne to Ronald and Nancy Reagan to Grace Kelly — came into our living rooms as if they were two friends just chatting, because, more often than not, they were two friends just chatting.
Case in point: a 1968 interview Merv conducted with Jane Fonda and her then-husband, French film director Roger Vadim. Merv made a point of explaining, at the beginning of the interview, that he had recently spent time at the couple’s farmhouse two hours outside Paris. And Mr. Griffin knew the couple well enough that, without any explanation, he called Roger Vadim by his last name only. As the interview progressed, Ms. Fonda did that as well, so it became clear that those “in the know” called Mr. Vadim just by his last name, not his first name.
The entire conversation was clearly based on Mr. Griffin’s intimate knowledge of the couple.
It’s that intimacy — reinforced by Mr. Griffin’s lean-in “close talker” style of interviewing, wherein you were sure that at any moment he would actually end up in their lap — that my grandmother and millions of others loved.
While Mr. Griffin was best known for his celebrity interviews, he would indeed tackle the heavyweights now and again.
Back in 1967 he called his friend Harry Belafonte to see whether Mr. Belafonte could interest Martin Luther King Jr. in appearing on the show. Mr. Belafonte said he would, and that he could come along as well.
Of all the interviews I can recall seeing Mr. Griffin conduct — and this was reinforced by seeing the interview on DVD again recently — it was the one where his respect and awe for his subject was most palpable. What is most interesting about this interview is that Merv opened it up for questions from his studio audience, who just stood up and asked away. The most challenging question of the interview came from an audience member who asked Dr. King whether his opposition to the war in Vietnam might qualify as treason.
Mr. Griffin’s style also allowed him to get away with asking the occasional tough question without it seeming offensive to either the audience or the guest. For example, in another 1967 interview, with Richard Nixon before he announced that he would be running for the presidency in 1968, Merv just plain flat out asked Mr. Nixon how it felt to be referred to as a loser by some of the press. Mr. Nixon didn’t flinch, and said the best way to combat that criticism “is to win something.”
By the way, I highly recommend a three-disc DVD set that came out last year from Alpha Home Entertainment: “The Merv Griffin Show: 40 of the Most Interesting People of Our Time.” All of the interviews mentioned herein are included in the set.
Merv hosted talk shows for 23 years, and this collection includes clips from “Merv,” “Merv Griffin” and “The Merv Griffin Show.” Unlike the majority of Carson’s early “Tonight Show” interviews, which were not preserved, Merv’s interviews were kept. A number of interviews in the collection from the 1960s are in black-and-white. The collection is a wonderful snapshot into our culture at the time.
The most eerie story Merv tells in the collection is during his introduction of an Orson Welles interview. Mr. Welles was a frequent guest, and one of his standing ground rules was that Merv was to not ask him about his past. Furthermore, Merv never met with Mr. Welles before his appearances. Merv would introduce Mr. Welles, who would come out from backstage and they would just wing the interview with Merv not having the benefit of notes or preparation.
Well, Merv says on the DVD, on this particular day, Oct. 10, 1985, Mr. Welles was scheduled to be on the show and was waiting to talk to Merv when Merv arrived at the studio. This was highly unusual for Mr. Welles, and Merv was eager to hear what he wanted to tell him.
Mr. Welles said he had decided that on this particular appearance Merv could ask him any questions he wanted to about his past. Merv was thrilled.
He proceeded to do that, and Mr. Welles, ever the raconteur, tossed out various bon mots.
Then Merv drops the bombshell: Two hours after that interview Mr. Welles, 70, dropped dead.

TRIBUTES

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