One quality drove Mervyn Edward Griffin Jr.’s success as singer, contract actor, TV host, producer and business magnate, friends and colleagues agree: personality.
“The thing that made Merv successful was his genuine love of people,” said Steve Davis, president and CEO of Family Entertainment Group, who worked for Mr. Griffin at the Griffin Group. “He understood trends because he understood people so well and was so in tune with the likes and dislikes of the public that he became a natural for this business.”
Before becoming a television and real estate mogul, Mr. Griffin began his career as a singer, touring with big band singer Freddy Martin’s orchestra for four years and earning enough to form his own record label, Panda Records. After hitting the top of the record charts with “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” and flirting with films, he hosted NBC’s game show “Play Your Hunch” with Mark Goodson and Bill Todman as well as “Keep Talking” for ABC.
His love of the genre would soon escalate, as he turned toward producing as well as hosting, with “Word for Word” in 1963 for NBC, “Let’s Play Post Office” for NBC in 1965, NBC’s “Reach for the Stars” in 1967 and ABC’s “One in a Million” in 1967.
But it was the launch of “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1962 that turned the versatile performer into a household name across the country. The birth of Mr. Griffin’s talk show is credited to “The Tonight Show” host Jack Paar accidentally walking onto a live broadcast of “Play Your Hunch,” which Mr. Griffin was hosting. Mr. Griffin turned that error into an interview, and subsequently landed a guest-hosting gig on “The Tonight Show” as well as his own talk series.
“The Merv Griffin Show” soon was airing in prime time in key markets, tapping the talent of America’s most famous and powerful, including Martin Luther King Jr., Bob Hope and four U.S. presidents, as well as serving as a launching pad for the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Whitney Houston.
“To me he was successful because he loved everything he did and it showed,” said Gail Martin, daughter of Dean Martin. She appeared on Mr. Griffin’s show several times. “He made me feel special when I did his talk show and he always seemed to make his guests feel as if they were in on the joke and were there to have a good time. He was a great listener and a true fan of show business. I don’t know of anyone else like him.”
The show was picked up by Group W for syndication in 1965 in a 90-minute format, and Mr. Griffin was given absolute creative control over all aspects of the program. That deal allowed Mr. Griffin to inject more of his own influences into the program.
“He was always right for the job because his easygoing personality and ability to create a real conversation attracted people to the show,” said Owen Simon, who worked with Mr. Griffin at Group W before he took the series to CBS. “One of the most special things he did from my point of view was during a time of racial trouble in New York. Merv arranged for the show to take place in Harlem as an outdoor event, with James Brown serving as the entertainment. That was the kind of guy he was — he could handle situations like that and talk with anyone.”
Mr. Griffin finally retired the show in 1986 after stints with CBS and Metromedia, but not before creating his own game show empire. On March 30, 1964, he launched “Jeopardy!” on NBC. The show lasted 11 years on the network. In 1975, he created “Wheel of Fortune,” with Chuck Woolery as host. That series, while performing well, didn’t skyrocket until 1983, when the syndicated version of the show debuted with Pat Sajak and Vanna White. It still ranks as the top-rated syndicated strip today. In 1984, Mr. Griffin brought back “Jeopardy!” with Alex Trebek as host, which soon took over as the second-most-popular syndicated series.
After selling his production company, Merv Griffin Enterprises, to Columbia Pictures Television for $250 million and a piece of the revenues from “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” Mr. Griffin turned to real estate, buying the Beverly Hilton Hotel as well as casinos and ranches around the world.
But with his heart still in television, Mr. Griffin struck a deal last year with the William Morris Agency and syndicator Program Partners for a return to the game show genre with “Merv Griffin’s Crosswords.” The series, set to debut next month, is cleared in virtually every major market.
“We were extremely fortunate that he gave us this opportunity to work with him,” said Josh Raphaelson, co-founder of Program Partners. “His constant need to keep things fresh and new, as well as his ability to hold the room in the palm of his hand, was a primary factor to his success. For those of us in the syndication business, this is a guy who was an owner, operator and in control from everything from his production to his dealmaking. He took the game show business to a place where no one would have expected it to go in a way that will not be matched. That was his legacy.”
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