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Jim Murray

Merv Picked Right Racket? Oh, Really?

September 17, 1987|Jim Murray

The richest man on Sunset Boulevard was driving along it, idly listening to the car radio. The announcer broke for a commercial message, promising to come right back with the name of the man who, according to Forbes Magazine, was currently the richest man in the entertainment industry. The driver vagrantly wondered who it might be. Bob Hope? Aaron Spelling? Bill Cosby? A moment later, he almost crashed into a curbside tree.

"It was me!" recalls Merv Griffin in wonderment. "I had to pull off to the side of the road and sit there hyperventilating. I thought, 'How dare they?!' I glanced into cars going by and wondered whether they were listening to the same program. I hoped not."

Merv Griffin arrived at this high estate, driving along and finding himself one of the richest men in town, from a standing start as a guy who used to stand in front of Freddy Martin's band in the Coconut Grove and sing "I Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts."

Actually, Merv is the black sheep of the Griffin family. He comes from a long line of championship tennis players and they thought he might follow in the tradition. Uncle Clarence was three times U.S. men's doubles champion with the storied William (Little Bill) Johnston, and another time was runner-up at Forest Hills with John Strachan. Uncles Milton and Elmer were world-class players, as was his father, Mervin Sr.

"We all had lace curtain Irish names," explains Merv.

The family parlor might have had muslin, but the lace curtain Griffins were very big in the ad court.

Merv Griffin Jr. drifted south from his San Francisco and abandoned his tennis roots. He became the band singer for Martin's long run at the Grove. "It was the place for Hollywood in those days. Howard Hughes was there every night. Van Johnson used to grab the mike and sing. Bing Crosby used to dance by and say 'Don't pronounce your words so carefully, San Francisco. Slur them a little bit.' "

Hollywood, as they say, beckoned, and Merv became the lead in such non-Academy epics as "Cattle Town," "So This Is Love," and "By The Light Of The Silvery Moon." Winces Merv: "I was supposed to be Doris Day's co-star. But I photographed too young."

It was tennis that got him out of films. "I hated the movies." One day, Uncle Elmer had a chance to play Jack Warner in tennis. "I can let him win and save your job," his uncle warned Merv. "Kill him!" instructed his nephew. The uncle mowed the Warner brother down in straight sets, love-love, and Merv was suddenly in New York on daytime television.

It was the day of the quiz show scandals in New York, but Merv's shows were as honest as Uncle Elmer's tennis and he was soon whisking from his run on Broadway's "Finian's Rainbow" to center stage on such classics of the game-show genre as "Play Your Hunch," "Keep Talking," and "Word For Word."

It was when he sat in for Jack Paar on the "Tonight Show" (pre-Carson) that his career took off. Merv Griffin had such a disingenuous air about his questioning that his guests frequently found themselves blurting their most intimate secrets and emptying all their closets with an alacrity that fascinated audiences.

"Merv was so disarming they would forget they were on national TV and get to thinking they were talking to Merv on the bar car of the New York-New Haven-and-Hartford," an associate remembers. "Merv would just sit there and say 'Oh, really!' and 'You're kidding!' and they would fall all over themselves to tell him things they never told anybody."

Once, when Merv had on the deposed vice president, Spiro Agnew, his producer came to him in despair. "We can't talk about anything!" he wailed. "Look at the list of things that are off-limits! The most controversial thing on the show will be 'Hello!' "

Merv just smiled. "Don't worry," he soothed. "Just start the camera."

Viewers remember that, by the end of the show, Merv was getting away with questions like "And then what did you steal?"

The Merv Griffin Show was an American institution. Congressmen, thieves, athletes, movie queens, diplomats took his couch. Merv acted as if he were in awe of all of them and played a part that was part autograph-seeker and part prosecutor. The show was more fun than a bugged confessional. It was impossible not to watch--like seeing a guy walk a ledge in a snowstorm.

Merv tried to maintain his little-boy-in-the-big-city approach, but he was as sophisticated as any of his film-star guests. Once, when he was singing at the Palladium, a young Hollywood High student was president of his fan club. A girl named Carol Burnett.

But Merv never forgot the fantastic popularity of the game show as a television staple. He put together a pair that were to become the biggest money-makers in the history of the breed and put Merv in the capital grouping that used to belong to guys who owned railroads or oil fields.

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