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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,567

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This is the grave of Merv Griffin.

Born in 1925 in San Mateo, California, Griffin grew up wealthy, the son of a stockbroker. Despite being Irish, he managed to be accepted as an American. Must be a weakness of the era. A good Catholic boy, he ended up at the University of San Francisco. He was declared 4-F for a heart murmur so avoided World War II.

By the time he was a teenager, he was into performing. By 1944, he was on the radio singing. He was a fat kid and found that got in the way of his career because fans assumed he was a heartthrob and then they saw him. So he went on a massive diet and lost 80 pounds in 4 months. That doesn’t sound very healthy. But it worked for his career. He was a minor singer and got to tour some. He even had a #1 song on the Hit Parade in 1950 with “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.” This was a novelty song written back in 1944, but for some reason Merv’s version really clicked, with him singing and Freddy Martin and His Orchestra backing. So it became one of those songs that for awhile everyone did. Danny Kaye had a minor hit with it in 1951.

Griffin was also a pioneer in music. In 1945, he recorded his first album. Songs of Merv Griffin was the first ever American album recorded directly onto magnetic tape. Hollywood got interested after Doris Day became a big promoter of his. She got him a screen test with Warner Brothers. He never made it past being a minor supporting players in lesser musicals. But he did pioneer something again, and not for the last time. In 1953, he was in So This is Love. He and Kathryn Grayson performed an open mouthed kiss on the big screen. This was the first time that had gotten through the Hays Code since it was created and was really quite controversial. Can’t be influencing the kids with these questionable morals; after all, if we know one thing, it’s that no one in the 50s kissed.

Griffin made a couple more films but decided he didn’t like. He found the new media of television more interesting and that would be where Griffin would become a legend. He did some early musical performances on TV, but in 1954, he became the host for a new CBS show called Summer Holiday, which was basically a short-term seasonal variety show. He did well enough to get more attention as a television fixture. In 1958, NBC hired him to host Play Your Hunch, part of the game show mania of the time. Griffin knew his games and he would know his game shows. Play Your Hunch only ran until 1962 and he would spend the next several hosting any number of game shows that are forgotten today, such as Word for Word and Let’s Play Post Office, which sounds like the set-up for something a bit dirty. He also stepped in on The Price is Right when Bill Cullen was on vacation. But Griffin had something more than just the ability to host a game show. Once, during the making of Play Your Hunch, Jack Paar accidentally walked into the live filming of the show. Making serious lemonade out of that lemon, Griffin asked Paar for a live interview right now. Feeling bad about it all, Paar agreed and Griffin proved to executives that he could do this well.

So in 1962, Griffin started his own talk show. The Merv Griffin Show ran on NBC for only a year, but it soon moved to syndication and was on CBS for awhile too. In short, the show ran mostly continuously until 1986, making Griffin one of the masters of this new kind of show. It was presented to stations during its syndication run in interesting ways. It could be 60 minutes or 90 minutes. Some stations put it on in the day, some in prime time, some to challenge The Tonight Show, which became more common by the late 60s. But Griffin ran into the trouble by the late 60s and early 70s. He was more political than the networks wanted. He would have guests on to talk about the counterculture and the Vietnam War. When Abbie Hoffman was a guest, CBS executives blurred his American flag t-shirt so that viewers would not have to see such a thing on such a filthy hippie. Griffin never could overtake Carson, but no one else could either. What Griffin did was make his show where you went for interesting conversations with powerful guests, whether presidents or artists or civil rights leaders. He also hosted Whitney Houston’s first ever late night TV performance, in 1983. Overall, the show ran for 21 years and won 11 Emmy Awards.

But talk shows were only one part of the Griffin empire. The other big part were the game shows and some of these became the iconic game shows of TV history. He founded Jeopardy in 1984, which probably has been the most important game show of my lifetime, one that works as middlebrow entertainment, placing it a big step up over Griffin’s other huge game show, Wheel of Fortune, which has most certainly had more than its fair share of staying power, but which is dumb. These were originally network shows, but they became syndicated as they were always under risk of cancellation and sometimes were for short times.

Now an LA mogul, Griffin went big into real estate too. He bought the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1987 and worked with Donald Trump on a bunch of real estate deals that ruined Griffin’s finances, forcing him into bankruptcy in 1989. I for one am shocked that Donald Trump didn’t come through for his partners!

But Griffin recovered from this, went into more real estate, raised his own thoroughbreds, bought a huge 18th century castle in Ireland previously owned by John Huston, and just basically was Merv Griffin, Hollywood Power Broker.

It will hardly surprise than that Griffin was a huge Republican and supporter of Ronald Reagan. Again, the idea of Hollywood as some lefty haven really does not hold water when you are talking about industry leaders and top flight actors. Deeper into the credits, sure. But Griffin was close enough to Reagan to be honorary pallbearer at Grandpa Caligula’s funeral. The only interesting thing about this is that Griffin was willing to interview leftists on his show and publicize them. There were various accusations of sexual harassment and paternity suits over the years, but no one ever got anything out of Merv. He claimed they were extortion attempts, but who knows.

Griffin originally has prostate cancer in 1996. He beat that, but his cancer returned and he died in 2007. He was 82 years old.

Merv Griffin is buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California. And I think we can all agree that this is a fantastic gravestone.

If you would like this series to visit other American talk show hosts, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Mike Douglas is in Martin County, Florida and Larry King is in Culver City, California. A King grave post would be a lot of fun. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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