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Occasionally my Akron Beacon Journal job got me invited to make radio and television appearances. The one that surprised me most was when Harv Morgan asked me to join Merv Griffin as a guest on his show. Morgan was a popular Cleveland radio personality on KYW, a Westinghouse-owned station that along with its television counterpart later went to Philadelphia, which had its NBC affiliate transferred to Cleveland. That's a long story that isn't relevant here.

Anyway, it was 1965. Griffin would go on to become an industry giant, as much for the game-show empire he controlled (he created "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune") as the daytime talk show that came along several years later.

For several years there was a tendency to underestimate him, but to me Griffin seemed one of the smartest, sharpest people I'd ever met. The impression was formed mostly during the radio program when I noticed how quick and funny he was with the listeners who called in. This first talk show of his failed, in part, because Griffin wasn't afraid of controversy, particularly where the Vietnam War was concerned. This killed a lot of the support he needed from Westinghouse, which owned the show, and from stations that carried it in syndication.

He later had a late night talk show on CBS and suffered the same fate, but came back quickly as boss of his own daytime talk show and became a big, big hit.

Griffin and I also had a one-on-one interview which produced this story:

When easy-going Merv Griffin smiled his way through a recent Cleveland visit to promote his new television show, one of the required stops was a party for his local sponsors.

Griffin told those sponsors they had nothing to worry about.

"I can do a lot for your products," he bragged. Then he grinned impishly like the kid who says his father can lick yours.

"Just look at my record. I became a band singer just about the time television came along and killed the band business.

"I went to Hollywood and my first movie was released the same day 20th Century Fox perfected the cinemascope process. My film was the last one released for the postage stamp screen.

"My first RCA Victor record was released the same day the company signed another young man and decided to concentrate on his career. I think the guy's name was Elvis something-or-other.

"Then I took over nightime quiz show. That was the same week Congress decided to investigate rigged programs.

"And how about my afternoon TV show on NBC in 1962? That one was canceled after 26 weeks.

"So you see, people, I just can't miss."

GRIFFIN'S REMARKS were in keeping with the party. The drinks were free and the conversation loose. Tomorrow would come in a different world.

Griffin may make light of himself at such affairs, but in private he is confident his new show – despite the obstacles – will be a success. His is a lackadaisical kind of confidence but it's confidence nonetheless.

His program, a 90-minute talk show, begins next Monday over KYW and 24 other stations that somehow have forgiven the producers – the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company – for feeding them another late night show, That Regis Philbin Disaster.

INEVITABLY, viewers will compare Griffin with his chief rival, Johnny Carson, king of TV's insomniacs.

Ironically, Griffin at one time was under contract to NBC and would have taken over "The Tonight Show" if Carson hadn't panned out so quickly and so well.

Griffin became heir apparent to the job because of the fine way he handled "The Tonight Show" during the interval between Jack Paar's departure and Carson's arrival.

Like any relief pitcher, Griffin was kept in a bullpen, his being a daily afternoon show over NBC.

The Griffin program drew raves but was canceled because of low ratings, or so the network said. More likely NBC had become satisfied with Carson's work and decided it didn't need Griffin in reserve. After that the network filled afternoons with cheaper but more profitable programming.

GRIFFIN, like Carson, has a great deal of pixie charm beneath his boyish face. Both men look much younger than their 39 years.

Both are intelligent, hip and curious – three ingredients essential for conducting the many interviews it takes for fill 90 minutes five nights a week.

Both also possess that rarest of talents – they entertain, but never overpower. Each knows when to get out of the spotlight ... and how long to stay out.

But the odds are stacked against Griffin. Carson already has chopped up Steve Allen, Les Crane, Philbin, and a whole bunch of hosts on ABC's "Nightlife" program. And he did so with ease.

IT'S IMPROBABLE Griffin will have much success. Still Griffin has become a master of the improbable.

Take his show business beginning, for instance. He was a college freshman at the time – 1944 – and packed 250 pounds on his five-foot-nine-inch frame. "And I had a lot of pimples," he added.

He tried for a job as a piano player at a San Francisco radio station, but was told there was only an opening for a singer. So he sang – and got the job.

"A week later I had my own show. The station billed me as – get this – 'the new romantic singing sensation' ... me, the blemished blimp.

"NATURALLY the station didn't want anyone to see me. No one was allowed to watch the show. I became the Greta Garbo of radio.

"Then one day I struck up a conversation with a lady in the elevator as I was going to work. She said she wanted to see 'The Merv Griffin Show,' but I told her she wasn't allowed in the studio.

"When the elevator door opened, someone saw me and yelled, 'Hey, Merv! You're wanted on the phone.' The lady took a good look at me and laughed hysterically."

Griffin said he was so stung by the laugh that he went on a diet – and lost 80 pounds within a year.

HE LEFT the station to sing with Freddie Martin's band and after that signed a recording contract. Despite his jokes about it, his recording career was fairly successful in the pre-Elvis era. (Can we ever forget, "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts"?)

His movie career was considerably less successful. He went to Hollywood when musicals were on the skids. Only a few were being made and it seemed Gordon MacRae was the star of every one.

Griffin did get one chance – "So This is Love" with Kathryn Grayson – but after that appeared in non-musicals such as "Phantom of the Rue Morgue" and "The Boy From Oklahoma" before deciding to try television.

He began a regular vocalist on "The Robert Q. Lewis Show" and soon Griffin and Judy Johnson were about the second most popular singing team in the country. (Most popular? Frank Parker and Marian Marlowe, remember?)

GRIFFIN STOPPED singing when he became host for a series of game programs – "Play Your Hunch," "Shopping Spree," "Keep Talking" and "Word For Word."

He hasn't done much singing since.

Highlight of his career came in 1962 during those two weeks as host of "The Tonight Show." He became hot property and remained such until early 1963 when his afternoon show was canceled.

"BUT THERE'S something about unemployment that revives me," he says. "Really, I think my wife likes it when I'm out of work. She says that's when I start thinking again.

"After I lost that afternoon show my thoughts drifted into new areas. With my wife's help I came up with an original game show idea – 'Jeopardy.'

"We sold the idea to NBC and the program went on the air three weeks later. Now I have my own company of 64 people. We originate ideas, research questions, prepare scripts and produce shows.

"I've already sold another game show to NBC – 'Let's Play Post Office' – and it will be going on the air soon."

"LET'S PLAY Post Office,' incidentally, doesn't involve the kissing game we've all come to know and love. This one concerns letters that might have been written by persons famous in history or literature. Contestants compete to identify the writer.

Griffin also operates a radio station in Waterbury, Connecticut and was doing quite nicely, thank you, when Westinghouse approached him about doing the TV show.

The program will originate in New York and be taped early in the evenings to Griffin will be able to use nightclub and Broadway performers as well as movie and television types.

He was asked if he'd do the program live. He explained it is impossible – "there are no cables available to us" – and went on to say he wouldn't do it live even if he could.

"LIVE SHOWS are fun, but they're risky, too, especially when guests are encouraged to be informal. I had Danny Kaye as a guest on one of my NBC shows. One of our sponsors was a cigarette company. Kaye lit one of the sponsor's cigarettes and then coughed for about five minutes. It was a funny bit, but it didn't stay in the show.

"I argued against the cutting, but the sponsor's economic rebuttal was too strong.

"Jack Paar wanted to do his Friday night show live, but the network said Paar would have to insure the program against possible libelous statements. Lloyds of London told Paar it would provide the insurance – for $35,000 a week. Paar decided to tape the show.

"EVEN WHEN a show is taped there is no way of avoiding lawsuits. I've never done a program without running into them. There are four lawsuits pending against my old shows. None is serious. One lady in Nebraska claims we made fun of her somehow. We never mentioned her on the air. In fact, no one on the show had ever heard of her, but she's suing anyway.

"I don't think any of the people will collect, but just the same their lawsuits are a nuisance."

But this is the kind of nuisance Griffin is willing to endure.

And the longer the better.

NOTE: Griffin died in 2007 at age 82. The wife he referred to in our interview was Julann Wright whom he had married in 1958 and would divorce in 1976. He later had a long relationship with Eva Gabor, but there were persistent rumors Griffin was gay, thanks to a couple of lawsuits filed by men, one accusing Griffin of sexual harassment, the other asking for palimony for an alleged relationship gone bad.

 

 

Also . . .
Don Adams Patty Duke Ricardo Montalban
Herb Alpert Richard Egan George Montgomery
Dana Andrews Jack Elam Joanna Moore
John Astin Linda Evans Mary Tyler Moore
Frankie Avalon Pat Finley Ozzie and Harriet Nelson
Barbara Barrie Eric Fleming Hugh O'Brian
Bill Bixby Peter Fonda Pat O'Brien
George Burns Anthony Franciosa Gene Pitney
Michael Callan Annette Funicello Martha Raye
Richard Chamberlain Zsa Zsa Gabor Della Reese
Leslie Charleson Beverly Garland Carl Reiner
Petula Clark Jackie Gleason Barbara Rush
Dabney Coleman Merv Griffin Robert Ryan
Robert Conrad Mark Harman Henry Silva
Bill Cosby Patricia Harty Julie Sommars
Joseph Cotten Marty Ingels Barbra Streisand
Bob Crane Jack Jones The Three Stooges
Richard Crenna Jack Kelly The Supremes
Ken Curtis Dave Ketchum Dick Van Dyke
Bill Dana Sue Ane Langdon Jerry Van Dyke
Bobby Darin Sheldon Leonard Robert Vaughn
Sammy Davis Jr. Jack Lord Clint Walker
Richard Deacon George Maharis Ray Walston
Bob Denver Jackie Mason Betty White
James Drury Raymond Massey Andy Williams
  Martin Milner Henry Winkler
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