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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,648

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This is the grave of Richard Dawson.

Born in Gosport, Hampshire, England in 1932, Colin Emm grew up working class. His father drove a van and his mom worked in a munitions factory. He basically did not attend school and never would, Years later, when he was famous, he told an interviewer he had two years of formal schooling. He would end up in the Merchant Marine when he was 14 and ran away from home. He became a boxer as well on ship and on shore. He was good enough to win money.

There was another thing about Emm–he was a funny guy. So when he got out of the Merchant Marine in the early 50s, he started performing at comedy clubs. He knew he needed a different name, so he went with Dickie Dawson and then Richard Dawson. In fact, later he legally he changed his name. By 1954, he was appearing on television on the Benny Hill Showcase, which was one of these variety shows to give new talent a chance on TV. Over the next several years, Dawson was a minor figure in the British entertainment scene, appearing on a bunch of TV shows, comedy bits, etc. But he was no kind of star.

So in 1961, Dawson decided to take his shot in Hollywood. It didn’t take him long to start picking up minor comedic roles, often in skits on shows like The Jack Benny Program and The Dick Van Dyke Show. What made Dawson a thing was Hogan’s Heroes. Dawson played Corporal Peter Newkirk and while I find this show too silly to be watchable, you have to admit that Dawson was perfectly cast for what the role needed–a limey with a bunch of card tricks, scams, and gags. Since that pretty much summed up Dawson anyway, good job for the casting director there. He had recently had a very small role in a film called King Rat, which was a POW movie as well, and so he just transitioned into basically the same role on TV, except the film wasn’t a comedy. In any case, that seems to have given the show the idea to cast him.

Dawson’s comedy was popular and even after Hogan’s Heroes was cancelled, Dawson had plenty of work. By this time, we were in the late 60s and then the 70s–the ultimate time of people famous for being famous. Dawson pretty well fit this. He was everywhere. He was on Laugh In for a bit. But it was really the game show circuit, that golden time of middling comedians having enormously long careers by being able to quip effectively, that made Dawson a legend. He became one of the regulars on Match Game, along with Brett Somers, Charles Nelson Reilly, and of course Gene Rayburn as host. This was the second round of Match Game, the first having run from 1962-69. This era would run until 1979. Of course there were lots of other people who appeared on Match Game, but Dawson was in the very first episode, which also included Vicki Lawrence, Michael Landon, Jack Klugman, Jo Ann Pflug, and Anita Gillette. What a group! As the jokes became more risqué, Dawson thrived since that was a very easy way for him to work.

Dawson was so good on Match Game that he got his own game show. That was, of course, Family Feud, where Dawson, in the creepy ways of the TV hosts of the time, would kiss many of the female participants. Right there with Bob Barker asking women to reach into his pocket as they played some of the games, well…let’s just say that wouldn’t fly today. Actually he and Barker were good buddies. But even then, his bosses really were like, Dawson you need to stop doing that. So on the show, Dawson asked his viewers to write the network with their thoughts on their matter, which led people to overwhelmingly support Dawson’s kissing. Gross.

Anyway, Dawson did both shows until 1978, but it was getting to be too much so he stuck with Family Feud. He became one of Johnny Carson’s frequent guest hosts in the 80s. When Arnold Schwarzenegger was cast in The Running Man, he asked that Dawson (they were friends too) be cast as the evil game show host and of course that was really perfect casting, maybe the best thing about the movie.

Dawson had left Family Feud in 1985. The series plummeted in the ratings when it was rebooted without him. He came back in the mid 90s, and then he wasn’t kissing the ladies anymore because his daughter asked him not to do that. The show still didn’t really recover. But it continued on, first with Louie Anderson as host and now Steve Harvey. I don’t know why anyone would watch, but then I don’t understand much about people’s entertainment choices that I think are usually terrible.

Dawson did have very good politics, unlike many of the Hollywood figures we’ve covered here in recent months. OK, his gender politics were, let’s say, uh, limited. But he was a strong supporter of the civil rights movement and put his money and time where his mouth was on it too. He wanted an integrated show and he was like, hey I kiss Black women on the mouth too and that’s OK. Well Richard, maybe not, but I guess from one perspective he has a point.

Dawson was a very serious smoker. It’s amazing he lived until 79 with his 4-pack a day habit. Ti did finally kill him in 2012, but dang, that’s a lot of cancer sticks.

Richard Dawson is buried in Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California.

If you would like this series to visit other frequent Match Game participants, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Unfortunately, Gene Rayburn seems to have had his ashes scattered–too bad because I envision a grave emblazoned with a long skinny microphone. Brett Somers is in Westport, Connecticut and Michael Landon is in Culver City, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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