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Wally George, 71; Firebrand Host Made Insult TV a Hit With Orange County Show

October 07, 2003|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Wally George, who pioneered insult television on his long-running Orange County talk show "Hot Seat" in the 1980s, died Sunday in Fountain Valley.

George, better known to some as the father of actress Rebecca De Mornay, was 71. He died of pneumonia at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center after being hospitalized there for three months with complications from cancer.

George continued to tape his unabashedly conservative "Hot Seat" shows until July, completing his 20th year on the air, station officials said. The show, which airs at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday on KDOC-TV Channel 56, has consisted of reruns since then.

At the height of its popularity in 1984, "Hot Seat" was a must-see for college students, who waited six months for tickets and hours for a choice spot among the 80 audience seats, where they waved U.S. flags and chanted, "Wah-lee!" on cue. George engaged guests whom he called "liberal lunatics" and "fascist fanatics," including 1960s drug guru Timothy Leary and Tom Metzger, a white supremacist leader.

George called his delivery "combat TV," a phrase he used in an autobiography published in 1999. Johnny Carson, referring to the show's choreographed hysteria, once called George the William F. Buckley of the cockfighting set.

"Hot Seat" hit its stride in late 1983 when avowed pacifist Blase Bonpane, there to oppose the U.S. invasion of Grenada, erupted in anger over George's taunts, flipping over the host's desk before storming off the show. A clip of the altercation aired on national news programs.

"This was before Jerry Springer and those shows," said former Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach), who occasionally watched tapings from KDOC's Orange County studios. "The kids would get just as crazy as he would allow them to be. At one point, that show was so popular, people would choose it over normal network shows. But as insane as some of his antics used to be, he was very strong for moral values and family values."

Republican political consultant David Ellis said George perfected the "shock jock" format for conservative political talk shows. It was a style based on 1960s radio host Joe Pyne, who exhorted callers he disliked to "go gargle with razor blades" before hanging up on them.

"He drew that passion out of his audience," Ellis said.

In interviews in 1984, George defended his extreme interview style, punctuated by shouting "Jerk!" and "Moron!" at guests.

"They say that I'm a lunatic, that I'm a maniac. But why do you have to smile at your guests and be nice and let them say what they want to say?" he said in a March 1984 interview.

"There's a strong conservative tide among the youth across this nation," he said a month later. "That's why I appeal to them. They relate to me.... I just come across as a down-to-earth guy who's speaking not so much from a highly intelligent brain but who's speaking from his heart and gut."

George was the station's most recognized personality, said Calvin Brack, KDOC's CEO and a longtime friend of the host. "He's an institution."

Born George Walter Pearch on Dec. 4, 1931, in Oakland, George spent his early years in the San Francisco suburb of San Mateo. His mother was a former child vaudeville actress; his father owned and operated a shipping company. He later moved with his mother to Hollywood.

At 14, George snagged his first radio gig as a disc jockey with KIEV-AM in Glendale. He said in later interviews that the career move was pivotal because it cured him of childhood stuttering.

In 1969, he launched "The Wally George Show" on KTYN-FM in Inglewood. Three years later, he became producer and co-host of "The Sam Yorty Show" on KCOP-TV Channel 13 with his political mentor, L.A.'s then-Mayor Sam Yorty. In 1979, he began his own talk show on KCOP and moved the show to KDOC in 1982. "Hot Seat" premiered July 16, 1983.

The show's notoriety prompted feature stories in People magazine and The Times, though much of the attention was focused on George's relationship with his famous actress daughter. In a 1992 interview, he told The Times that he'd helped De Mornay establish herself as an actress when she moved to Hollywood from England, where she had lived with her mother until age 18. De Mornay has consistently refused to comment on her father and could not be reached Monday.

George said that he gave her "all the love and support I could have" but that his politics and disapproval of her friends led to their estrangement.

He was equally troubled in other personal relationships, being married and divorced at least four times. In recent years, he lived alone in a Garden Grove apartment.

In 1999, George filed for bankruptcy, claiming assets of $1,900 and $90,000 in bills. He blamed poor career management and a series of health problems, including two bouts with cancer and a 1996 car crash in Woodland Hills.

A full list of survivors was not immediately available. Besides De Mornay, George was the father of a son, Kerry, and another daughter, Holly, who was born in 1989.

No information about funeral services or memorials was available Monday.

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