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Merv Griffin: 1925-2007Merv Griffin: 1925-2007

Affable TV host built an empire on 2 hit game shows

August 13, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

In 1952, Warner Bros. star Doris Day saw Griffin singing in a Las Vegas hotel and a screen test was arranged for him at the studio, which signed him to a long-term contract.

In addition to uncredited bit parts in several films, Griffin had small parts in "Cattle Town," "Phantom of the Rue Morgue" and "The Boy From Oklahoma" and appeared opposite Kathryn Grayson in "So This Is Love," which earned him a footnote in movie history: It was, he said in his book, "the first time an open-mouthed kiss had ever been shown in theaters."

But after two lackluster years as a Warners contract player, Griffin bought out the remainder of his contract, moved to New York, where he appeared in a short-lived 1955 Broadway revival of the musical-comedy "Finian's Rainbow," and focused his professional attention on television.

He was hosting "Play Your Hunch" when he began substitute-hosting for Jack Paar once a week on "The Tonight Show" in early 1962.

Griffin proved to be a natural in the host's chair and went on to guest-host "The Tonight Show" for a number of weeks that summer, after Paar quit the show and before Carson took over in the fall.

Having generated such big ratings that summer, Griffin was offered an hourlong daytime talk show by NBC. "The Merv Griffin Show" debuted in October 1962 on the same day Carson began hosting "The Tonight Show."

Despite having stars such as Joan Crawford and Woody Allen as guests, "The Merv Griffin Show" was beaten in the ratings by the quiz show "Password." NBC canceled Griffin's show in April 1963.

In two weeks, Griffin wrote in his book, NBC received 160,000 letters of protest -- "the largest amount of mail ever received in support of a canceled show" at that time, he said.

Griffin returned to NBC in the fall of 1963 as host of a new game show, "Word for Word," that he developed and which his newly created company had produced.

But in the spring of 1965, "The Merv Griffin Show" was back, this time as a 90-minute program syndicated by Group W, the broadcasting division of Westinghouse Corp.

After 2 1/2 years as CBS' late-night talk-show offering -- from 1969 to 1971 -- "The Merv Griffin Show" moved back into syndication, this time with Metromedia Broadcasting, and ran from 1972 to 1986.

Griffin's 1958 marriage to Julann Wright, whom he met when she was TV personality Robert Q. Lewis' secretary-assistant, produced a son, Tony, and ended in divorce in 1976. Griffin later had a close relationship with actress Eva Gabor, who died in 1995.

In addition to being a close friend of Nancy Reagan, Griffin also served as one of five honorary pallbearers at President Reagan's state funeral. Officials of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum near Simi Valley, where Griffin was a longtime member of the board of trustees, announced that a condolence book and photo tribute had been established for Griffin.

In 1991, Griffin, then 65, was facing a multimillion-dollar palimony suit from Brent Plott, a 37-year-old former employee who alleged that for years he had been Griffin's business consultant and lover and was entitled to a large share of his fortune.

"We lived together, shared the same bed, same house," Plott told NBC News. "He told me he loved me."

In a statement issued by his attorney, Griffin denied Plott's claims.

"This is a shameless attempt to extort money from me," he said. "This former bodyguard and horse trainer was paid $250 a week, lived in one of two apartments underneath my former house as part of his security function, and left my payroll six or seven years ago. His charges are ridiculous and untrue."

The same year, Deney Terrio, the host of "Dance Fever," the disco show executive-produced by Griffin in the late 1970s and '80s, filed an $11.3-million sexual harassment suit against him.

Both cases reportedly were eventually dismissed, but questions about Griffin's sexuality lingered.

For his part, Griffin dismissed the issue with characteristic good humor, telling the New York Times in 2005 with a sly grin: "I tell everybody that I'm a quatre-sexual: I will do anything with anybody for a quarter."

Throughout his life, Griffin managed to remain upbeat.

"You know, I really never get down," he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2005. "My philosophy is that you have to constantly be turning the page, which prevents me from getting caught up in any negativity. It's all about change for me: I just keep moving and enjoy the ride."

In addition to his son Tony and his wife Tricia, Griffin is survived by two grandchildren, Farah and Donovan Mervyn.

Services will be held at a later date by invitation only.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made to the Young Musicians Foundation, 195 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90212.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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