GRIFFIN, MERV

U.S. Talk Show Host/Producer

Merv Griffin had a series of overlapping careers in show business as a singer and band leader, then as a talk show host and developer of game shows for television. Griffin's career as a television talk show host was associated from the beginning with that of Johnny Carson, the reigning "king of late night talk" from the 1960s through the 1980s. Griffin's first daytime talk show on NBC began the same day as Carson's reign on the Tonight show, and if Carson was consistently rated number one as national talk show host, Griffin was for significant periods of time clearly number two.

Carson's approach to the television talk show had been forged in the entertainment community of Los Angeles in the mid-1950s. Griffin, who came to New York to sign a record contract with RCA in the early 1950s, was subject to a series of other influences. He watched shows like Mike Wallace's Night Beat and David Susskind's Open End and socialized with New York's theater crowd. On his own first ventures into network talk in the mid- and late 1960s, he was interested in capitalizing on the ferment of the era. As surprising as it might be to those who knew him only from his later tepid shows on Metromedia, the Merv Griffin of the 1960s and early 1970s thrived on controversy. Broadcast historian Hal Erickson credits Griffin with using his "aw-shucks style to accommodate more controversy and makers of controversy than most of the would-be Susskind's combined." Griffin booked guests like journalist Adele Rogers St. John, futurist Buckminster Fuller, writer Norman Mailer, critic Malcolm Muggeridge, and controversial new comedians like Dick Gregory, Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor and George Carlin. In 1965, in a Merv Griffin special aired from London, English philosopher Bertrand Russell issued the strongest indictment up to that time of the growing U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

As the late night television talk show wars heated up between Carson, Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, and David Frost, Griffin entered the fray in 1969 as CBS's candidate to take on Carson in his own time slot. He immediately ran afoul of network censors with controversial guests and topics. Concerned with the number of statements being made against the War in Vietnam in 1969, CBS lawyers sent Griffin a memo: "In the past six weeks 34 antiwar statements have been made and only one pro-war statement, by John Wayne." Griffin shot back: "Find me someone as famous as Mr. Wayne to speak in favor the war and we'll book him." As Griffin recalls in his autobiography, "The irony of the situation wasn't wasted on me; in 1965 I'm called a traitor by the press for presenting Bertrand Russell, and four years later we are hard-pressed to find anybody to speak in favor of the Vietnam war." In March of 1970 antiwar activist Abbie Hoffman visited the show wearing a red, white and blue shirt that resembled an American flag. Network censors aired the tape but blurred Hoffman's image electronically so that his voice emanated from a "jumble of lines." The censors interfered in other ways as well, insisting Griffin fire sidekick Arthur Treacher because he was too old or that he not use 18-year old Desi Arnaz, Jr. as a guest host because he was too young.

By the beginning of 1972, Griffin had had enough. He secretly negotiated a new syndication deal with Metromedia which gave him a daytime talk show on the syndicated network the first Monday after any day he was fired. A penalty clause in his contract with CBS would give him a million 1971 dollars as well. With his ratings sagging, CBS predictably lowered the boom and Griffin went immediately to Metromedia where his daytime talk show ran for another 13 years. In 1986 he retired from the show to devote full time to his highly profitable game shows.

It was in this second arena of the daytime game show that Merv Griffin again influenced commercial television. A self-proclaimed "puzzle freak" since childhood, he began to establish his reputation as a game show developer at about the same time he launched his talk show career. Jeopardy, produced by Griffin's company for NBC in March of 1964, became the second most successful game show on television. The most successful game show on television, with international editions licensed by Merv Griffin in France, Taiwan, Norway, Peru and other countries by the early 1990s, was Wheel of Fortune.

Wheel premiered in January 1975. It was a game show in which three contestants took turns spinning a large wheel for the chance to guess the letters of a mystery word or phrase. The show's first host was Chuck Woolery. Pat Sajak took over in 1982, assisted by Vanna White. Sajak and White went on to become "household names" in the world of television game shows.

In a largely unflattering portrait, biographer Marshall Blonsky describes Griffin as a financially successful but artistically limited individual. The key to Griffin's character, according to Blonsky, was a desperate drive to be accepted by the rich and powerful, and much of his financial success he owed to his financial manager, Murray Schwartz, who he never credited and with whom he parted ways in the late 1980s. However that may be, Merv Griffin did provide controversy and significant competition for Johnny Carson and other talk show hosts during his long career on television, and possessed what even Blonsky acknowledges to be a genius for creating game shows for television.

-Bernard M. Timberg

 


The Merv Griffin Show

MERV GRIFFIN. Born in San Mateo, California, U.S.A., 6 July 1925. Educated at San Mateo Junior College and the University of San Francisco, 1942-44; honorary L.H.D. from Emerson College, 1981. Married Julann Elizabeth Wright, 1958 (divorced 1976), children: Anthony Patrick. Singer, San Francisco radio station KFRC, 1945-48; vocalist, Freddy Martin's Orchestra, 1948-51; appeared in motion pictures for Warner Brothers, 1953-54; headlined quarter-hour twice-weekly musical segments for CBS, 1954-55; hosted CBS' Look Up and Live, 1953; radio show host, ABC, 1957; host of daytime game show Play Your Hunch, 1958-61, host of Merv Griffin Show, 1962-63; founded Merv Griffin Productions which began producing Jeopardy, 1964, and the Griffin-hosted Word for Word, 1963; hosted the Merv Griffin Show for Westinghouse, 1965-69, CBS, 1969-72, and syndication, 1972-86; chair of the board of Merv Griffin Productions; continues to produce Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. Recipient: numerous Emmy Awards. Address: Merv Griffin Enterprises, 9860 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, California 90210, U.S.A.

TELEVISION SERIES

1951 The Freddy Martin Show
1953 Look Up and Live
1954 Summer Holiday (regular)
1958-61 Play Your Hunch
1959-60 Keep Talking
1962-63 Merv Griffin Show (NBC)
1963 Word For Word
1963 Talent Scouts
1964-75; 1978-79;
1984- Jeopardy! (producer)
1965-69 Merv Griffin Show (Westinghouse)
1969-72 Merv Griffin Show
1972-86 Merv Griffin Show (syndicated)
1975- Wheel of Fortune (producer)
1979-87 Dance Fever (producer)
1990 Monopoly (producer)

TELEVISION SPECIALS

1960 Biography of a Boy
1968 Merv Griffin's Sidewalks of New England
1968 Merv Griffin's St. Patrick's Day Special
1973 Merv Griffin and the Christmas Kids
1989 The 75th Anniversary of Beverly Hills
1991 Merv Griffin's New Year's Eve Special

FILMS

By the Light of the Silvery Moon, 1953; So This Is Love, 1953; Boy From Oklahoma, 1953; Phantom of the Rue Morgue, 1954; Hello Down There, 1968; Two Minute Warning, 1976; Seduction of Joe Tynan, 1979; The Man With Two Brains, 1983; The Lonely Guy, 1984; Slapstick of Another Kind, 1982

PUBLICATION

Merv, An Autobiography (with Peter Barsocchini). New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

FURTHER READING

Marshall Blonsky. American Mythologies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

 

See also Format Sales; Quiz and Game Shows; Talk Shows