Chuck Barris, the prolific producer who died March 21 at age 87, was a natural-born showman and entrepreneur. He had an irrepressibly raunchy and goofy sense of humor that was on display in his many successful TV series, from “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game” to “The Gong Show” and “The $1.98 Beauty Show.”
Who else but Barris would take out an ad in Variety highlighting the fact that he’d had three shows canceled in six months? Who else would brag about his success with an ad headlined “We’re No. 1 Because We Work Harder” with a photo of the boss and his top execs at the beach?
Barris started Chuck Barris Prods. in 1965 with a $20,000 loan from his stepfather. By the end of the year, he’d launched “The Dating Game” as a daytime series on ABC.
He drew a fair amount of ridicule from industry colleagues later in life when he asserted in his 1984 memoir “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” that he’d moonlighted as a CIA assassin during his heyday in TV. (Sam Rockwell played him in the 2002 movie adaptation directed by George Clooney.) The question of whether his claim, steadfastly denied by the CIA, was an elaborate put-on or a delusional fantasy — or, in the most bizarre scenario, true — was never answered satisfactorily by the source.
Barris’ friends were quick to note after his passing that there was a little-known but significant side to the producer. During his brief tenure as an ABC programming executive in the mid-1960s, he worked to integrate African-American characters into the network’s soaps. He was also insistent from the get-go of “Dating” and “Newlywed” that the shows feature black couples alongside whites.
In March 1965, he took time off from his job at ABC to help Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prepare for the historic march from Selma to Montgomery across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He spent his own money to rent trucks and equipment for the march, according to industry vet Edward Bleier, a former ABC co-worker at the time.
“All of Barris’ programs were color-blind,” Bleier recalled. “His efforts for social justice were often public, but his courage was private.”