Merv Griffin

Active - 1952 - 2011  |   Born - Jul 6, 1925 in San Mateo, California, United States  |   Died - Aug 12, 2007   |   Genres - Comedy, Comedy Drama, Musical, Western, Horror

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The son of a tennis pro, California-native Merv Griffin was evidently a born entertainer; as early as age seven, he was staging neighborhood carnivals and churning out his own one-page newspaper. Displaying a gift for music, Griffin was sent to study at a San Francisco conservatory, after which the 14-year-old led his local church choir and supported himself as a professional organist. After rubbing shoulders with the Hollywood glitterati at his uncle's tennis club, Griffin decided to make show business his life. He toured with his own USO troupe during the war, then became a Los Angeles radio pianist and singer. Because he tipped the scales at around 250 pounds, Griffin was billed as "the mystery voice" rather than have the illusion dispelled by publishing his photograph. When a fan visiting his studio laughed out loud at the sight of the porcine mystery voice, Griffin immediately went on a crash diet. It was a svelte and handsome Griffin who signed on in 1948 as a vocalist for Freddy Martin's orchestra; after scoring a hit with a recording of "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Cocoanuts," the boyish baritone was given a contract at Warner Bros.

Most of Griffin's movie appearances were in supporting roles, though he did play a substantial male lead opposite Kathryn Grayson in the 1953 Grace Moore biopic So This Is Love. (In 1982, he made a surprise return to movies as the "human punch line" to a running gag in Steve Martin's Man with Two Brains). Entering television in the mid-'50s, Griffin was a featured vocalist on the CBS Morning Show and the comedy/variety programs of Robert Q. Lewis and Kate Smith. He got his first taste of hosting his own TV program at a CBS outlet in Florida, after which he emceed such popular network game shows as Play Your Hunch (1958-1962) and Keep Talking (1960).

Flourishing as his own producer in the early '60s, Griffin launched a daily, hour-long NBC talk show in 1962, which, though popular with the critics, died opposite CBS's soap opera lineup. Griffin's next foray into the chat-show world had more lasting results: in 1965, Westinghouse Broadcasting inaugurated the syndicated nighttimer The Merv Griffin Show, which after a hesitant first few months in which Merv tried to imitate rival Johnny Carson, hit its stride by peppering his showbiz palaver with controversial issues and such volatile guest stars as philosopher Bertrand Russell. The Merv Griffin Show also gave a shot in the arm to the career of irascible British character actor Arthur Treacher, who functioned as Merv's "Ed McMahon."

In 1969, the CBS network, hoping to topple the mighty Carson in late night, offered Griffin his own CBS talk show. Not anxious to leave his comfortable niche, Griffin tried to throw CBS off his trail by demanding to be paid more than NBC paid Carson; to his amazement, CBS agreed. The network version of The Merv Griffin Show began in 1969 -- and ended a scant four years later, as much a victim of network censorship and indecision as lukewarm ratings. Griffin returned to syndication under the Metromedia imprimatur in 1972, remaining in the late-night race until voluntarily calling it quits in 1986. That same year, he sold his Merv Griffin Enterprises to Coca-Cola for a whopping 250 million dollars. Thanks to this deal, to his nurturing of such game-show properties as Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, and to his management of numerous casinos, hotels, and resorts in both L.A. and Las Vegas, Merv Griffin closed out the 20th century as one of the wealthiest entertainer/entrepreneurs on earth, with a total net worth of well over one billion dollars. He died in August 2007 at 82 years old.

Movie Highlights

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  • First showbiz job was as a vocalist for the radio station KFRC in San Francisco.
  • His Songs by Merv Griffin (1946) was the first U.S. album produced on magnetic tape.
  • Paid Jack Warner $5,000 to terminate his Warner Bros. contract because he hated making movies.
  • Earned more than $70 million in royalties for writing the Jeopardy! theme.
  • Sold Merv Griffin Enterprises to Coca Cola's Columbia Pictures Television Unit for $250 million in 1986.
  • Expanded his business dealings to include real-estate acquisitions (he bought the famed Beverly Hilton Hotel in 1987) and racehorses.
  • Was a close friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan and was an honorary pallbearer at the former president's 2004 funeral.
  • Received a Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 2005; at the time, he had won 10 Daytime Emmys out of 32 nominations.
  • Died of prostate cancer in 2007; Arnold Schwarzenegger, who credited Griffin with helping to start his career, gave a eulogy at his funeral.