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Merv Griffin: 1925-2007Merv Griffin: 1925-2007

Affable TV host built an empire on 2 hit game shows

August 13, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Merv Griffin, the former big-band singer who leveraged his career as a popular TV talk-show host into a business empire whose foundations included the creation of the wildly successful syndicated game shows "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!," died Sunday. He was 82.

Griffin died of prostate cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, according to a statement from his family that was released by Marcia Newberger, spokeswoman for his Beverly Hills-based Griffin Group.

On July 19, his company said that Griffin was being treated for a recurrence of prostate cancer discovered during a routine examination a few weeks earlier.

An entertainer-turned-entrepreneur, who sold Merv Griffin Enterprises to Coca-Cola Co. for $250 million in 1986 and recently was reported to have a net worth of $1.6 billion, Griffin presided over an array of business endeavors.

His Griffin Group includes film and television production; a luxury home development in La Quinta; closed-circuit coverage of horse racing across the country; a real estate brokerage specializing in high-end residential properties; and a stable of thoroughbreds that includes Stevie Wonderboy, the 2005 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner at Belmont Park.

Since buying the Beverly Hilton in 1987 -- he spent millions renovating the hotel, which he sold in 2003 -- Griffin has bought and sold more than 20 hotels, gaming resorts and riverboats, including Resorts International in Atlantic City, N.J., and the Bahamas.

Although he was a TV talk-show host for more than two decades, Griffin's most enduring show business claim to fame is creating and producing "Jeopardy!" (launched in 1964) and "Wheel of Fortune" (launched in 1975). Both shows originally aired on NBC and, beginning in the 1980s, became the two most popular syndicated game shows in television history.

Both programs were included in the 1986 sale of Merv Griffin Enterprises. But Griffin wrote the theme music for "Wheel of Fortune" and the famous "thinking music" played in the final round of "Jeopardy," which continued to provide him with millions of dollars in royalties.

"I have to say that the ongoing success of 'Jeopardy!' and 'Wheel' is my biggest thrill," Griffin, a self-described "word and puzzle freak," told the Hollywood Reporter in 2005. "I mean, they're still right there at the top of the ratings -- they've never slipped. They're timeless and ageless, and in the history of TV there has never been anything like them."

In a statement Sunday, former First Lady Nancy Reagan called the news of Griffin's death "heartbreaking" and remembered Griffin's friendship and support during President Reagan's battle with Alzheimer's disease.

"Merv meant the world to me. He was there for me on some of the hardest days when Ronnie was fighting Alzheimer's, and he was there for me every day after Ronnie died," she said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recalled Sunday that he made his talk-show debut in the United States on Griffin's show in 1974.

"Merv has always been a big part of my success," Schwarzenegger said in a statement, recalling that Griffin appeared with him on the campaign trail during the 2003 recall election.

He called Griffin "an entertainment and business giant who excelled at whatever he put his mind to."

In 2005, Griffin received a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and a similar award from the Museum of Television and Radio in New York, which is now called the Paley Center for Media.

"There really has been no one who has managed to have his type of success in front of and behind the camera," Stuart N. Brotman, then-president of the Museum of Television and Radio, told the New York Times at the time. "He is a one-man conglomerate, and I can't think of anyone else who has had that reach."

Critic and show business historian Leonard Maltin agreed.

"Other show business figures have gotten wealthy from good investments, but I can't think of anyone who's become a one-man conglomerate quite like Merv Griffin," Maltin told the Los Angeles Times via e-mail. "The closest comparison I could make would be Gene Autry."

For older Americans, Griffin is best remembered as the genial host of "The Merv Griffin Show."

For two decades -- the Emmy Award-winning show aired variously on NBC, CBS and, for most of its 1960s-to-1980s run, in syndication -- Griffin presided over a wide-ranging gabfest.

Guests as varied as artists Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, writers Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, comedians Richard Pryor and Woody Allen, and film legends Bette Davis and Orson Welles dropped by to chat.

Also thrown into the mix were guests such as burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, transsexual Christine Jorgensen and visionary architect Buckminster Fuller -- as well as a string of politicians and newsmakers that included Richard Nixon, Robert F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and antiwar activist Abbie Hoffman.

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