Media mogul known for gameshows, talkshow

Merv Griffin, who parlayed his start as a band singer and talkshow host into career as a gameshow mogul and resort tycoon worth well over $1 billion, died of prostate cancer in Los Angeles on Sunday. He was 82.

He had battled the cancer before and was hospitalized in mid-July after it recurred.

The soft-spoken though stubbornly tenacious performer had a brief singing and film career and then found his sea legs on television, where he won 17 Emmys.

He struck gold when he took his “Merv Griffin Show” talker into firstrun syndication. As producer of that show and two mainstay gameshows — “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” — Griffin began to amass a sizable fortune.

Griffin started putting the proceeds from selling “Jeopardy” and “Wheel” in treasury bonds, stocks and other investments, but went into real estate and other ventures because, he said, “I was never so bored in my life.”

Griffin’s empire grew through ownership of real estate and businesses including radio stations, a closed-circuit TV service for racetracks and the production facilities of TransAmerican Video.

In 1986 he sold Merv Griffin Enterprises to Coca-Cola subsidiary Columbia Pictures for $250 million, retaining a share of the profits.

Soon after, he bought the Beverly Hilton Hotel for $100 million after losing a bid to buy the Beverly Hills Hotel to the sultan of Brunei. He sold the Hilton to Beny Alagem’s Oasis West in 2003.

In 1988 he battled with real estate tycoon Donald Trump for Resorts Intl., including five hotels, one in Atlantic City and four on Paradise Island, as well as two casinos. He was expected to be trounced but instead wound up victorious, acquiring the properties for $295 million.

“I love the gamesmanship,” he told Life magazine in 1988. “This may sound strange, but it parallels the gameshows I’ve been involved in.”

In recent years, Griffin also rated frequent mentions in the sports pages as a successful owner of racehorses, which were kept on his Merv Griffin Ranch in La Quinta near Palm Springs. His colt Stevie Wonderboy, named for entertainer Stevie Wonder, won the $1.5 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in 2005.

The “Jeopardy” theme song, “Think!” was originally composed as “A Time for Tony” by Griffin as a lullaby for his son. It has insinuated itself into everyday life; Griffin at one time estimated that the song had earned him over $70 million in royalties.

Other arms of the his empire — — the Griffin Group/Griffin Entertainment — own real estate such as John Huston’s manor St. Clerans, in Ireland, which is run as a rental property.

Mervyn Edward Griffin Jr. was born in the San Francisco suburb of San Mateo. He showed musical ability at a young age and hoped to become a concert pianist. After leaving studies at the U. of San Francisco, he auditioned to be a staff musician at radio station KFRC, and when he found out management was looking for a crooner, he sang instead. His baritone easy-listening style made him a romantic idol despite his hefty frame.

In 1948 he joined Freddy Martin’s band as solo singer, and in 1951 the collaboration hit the charts with “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.” Griffin became a solo nightclub performer in the early 1950s, and he screen-tested for a role in “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” which led to supporting roles in other musical films such as 1953’s “So This Is Love.”

But the film roles were few and far between. He then signed with CBS for a musical variety show in 1955 and made his Broadway debut in a revival of “Finian’s Rainbow,” but Griffin’s true calling was as a TV host. His pleasant, ever-smiling presence was first put to use on CBS’ TV Sunday religious show “Look Up and Live” (where he earned $119 a week).

In 1956, he hosted radio staple “The Morning Show.” Two years later, ABC Radio gave him his own show, which was such a success that producers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman chose him to be their daytime host on the TV gameshow “Play Your Hunch,” which soon expanded to nighttime viewing.

Always busy, Griffin also wrote songs such as “Eternally” and “Hot-Cha-Cha.”

In 1962 he substituted for Jack Paar on “The Tonight Show,” but producers ended up giving the gig to Johnny Carson. The network gave him a matinee show instead, which was canceled in 1963, sparking protest mail from viewers.

Griffin’s career as a producer began in 1963 with the short-lived gameshow “Word for Word.” A few months later, NBC purchased his quizzer “Jeopardy,” which went on to become the most successful TV gameshow ever. “Dance Fever” was another hit. Then “Wheel of Fortune” joined “Jeopardy” as one of the top gamers in TV history.

He syndicated “The Merv Griffin Show,” which ran for several years until CBS decided to put him head to head with Carson in 1969. After three years, the network pulled the plug, and Griffin went back to firstrun syndication, where he became a household name and a very wealthy man. “The Merv Griffin Show” ran into the 1980s.

Merv Griffin Entertainment continued to develop gameshows such as “Merv Griffin’s Crosswords,” expected to air in September. Griffin was passionate about crossword puzzles. His old friend and longtime business associate Warren Cowan said “I would visit him in the morning and he would have already have completed the crosswords in the New York Times, the L.A. Times and USA Today.”

In a statement, longtime friend Nancy Reagan said: “This is heartbreaking, not just for those of us who loved Merv personally, but for everyone around the world who has known Merv through his music, his television shows and his business.”

Griffin married Julann Elizabeth Wright in 1958; that union ended in divorce during the 1970s. Impishly coy about his rumored sexuality over the years (he was even sued unsuccessfully for palimony by one man, whom Griffin countersued), he once quipped to the New York Times, “I’m a quatre-sexual — I will do anything with anybody for a quarter.” At one point he also had a high-profile relationship with Eva Gabor.

He is survived by his son Tony, who is active in his father’s businesses, and two grandchildren.

The family said an invitation-only funeral Mass will be held at a later date at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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