What a career. Band singer, actor, talkshow mogul, gameshow creator, hotel owner and general man about town. Merv Griffin, who died Sunday at 82, was sui generis, and will be missed. (For all the details about his impressive life and career, read the Variety.com obit.)
For those of us born before the Carter administration, Merv (he was always just “Merv”) was one of those transcendent personalities that was always on TV in some form or another, either on his own show or as a guest on “The Tonight Show” or in the news for his business wheelings and dealings. The guy who first made his name singing “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” made international headlines in 1986 in selling his Merv Griffin Enterprises, with its cash cows “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!,” to Coca-Cola (then owner of Columbia Pictures) for a whopping $250 million in 1986.
Merv genuinely loved television and had a knack for creating it. I remember having lunch with him and his longtime producing associate Ernie Chambers at the Beverly Hilton (or “Merverly Hilton,” as Army Archerd cleverly dubbed it after Merv bought the hotel) and him assuring me that the his latest syndicated quiz show “Click” was going to be a huge hit, as was its host, young Ryan Seacrest. He had a great, all-encompassing laugh that could stop traffic. Hotel guests and sundry passersby kept coming up to our table to shake his hand and tell him how much they loved his show, etc. He had a warm smile and wink for every one of them.
One of the most sincere tributes to Merv place in the pop culture firmament came from “Seinfeld” in its final season, in “The Merv Griffin Show” seg where Kramer finds the talkshow’s old set in a dumpster and decides to recreate it in his living room.
Thanks to YouTube, there’s no shortage of clips of Merv at his best, behind the desk of his own talk show, which ran for nearly 25 years in one form or another, from the New Frontier era of 1962 through the mid-Reagan years. Below is a great representative clip of “The Merv Griffin Show” from 1981 featuring the Carpenters (Merv naturally gravitated to musical guests, and I chose the Carpenters from all the options available because I love them, even though Karen, sadly, doesn’t look so good by this point). Below that is a glimpse of Merv’s humble beginnings as a band singer for Freddy Martin and his signature tune. With that kind of charm, fabulous smile and 1000-watt twinkle in his eye, it’s clear that this was a guy who was destined to go far.