Hollywood Legend Merv Griffin Dead At 82

Merv Griffin: at left, in 1963, hosting the NBC series "Merv Griffin's Word for Word," and, at right, in 2003, poolside at the Beverly Hilton, the first of his many hotel acquisitions, in what was his fourth career. AP

Merv Griffin, the entertainer turned impresario who parlayed his "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune" game shows into a multimillion-dollar empire, has died. He was 82.

Griffin died of prostate cancer, according to a statement from his the family that was released by Marcia Newberger, spokeswoman for The Griffin Group/Merv Griffin Entertainment.

From his beginning as a $100-a-week San Francisco radio singer, Griffin moved on as vocalist for Freddy Martin's band, sometime film actor in films and TV game and talk show host. His "The Merv Griffin Show" lasted more than 20 years, and Griffin's said his capacity to listen contributed to his success.

"If the host is sitting there thinking about his next joke, he isn't listening," Griffin reasoned in a recent interview.

But his biggest break financially came from inventing and producing "Jeopardy" in the 1960s and "Wheel of Fortune" in the 1970s.
After they became the hottest game shows in television, Griffin sold the rights to them to the Columbia Pictures Television Unit for $250 million, retaining a share of the profits. He started spreading the sale money around in treasury bonds, stocks and other investments.

He made Forbes' list of richest Americans several times and started putting money in treasury bonds, stocks and other investments. But he went into real estate and other ventures because "I was never so bored in my life."

"I said, 'I'm not going to sit around and clip coupons for the rest of my life,' " he recalled in 1989. "That's when Barron Hilton said, 'Merv, do you want to buy the Beverly Hilton?' I couldn't believe it."

Griffin bought the slightly passe hotel for $100.2 million and completely refurbished it for $25 million. Then he made a move for control of Resorts International, which operated hotels and casinos from Atlantic City to the Caribbean.

That touched off a feud with real estate tycoon Donald Trump. Griffin eventually acquired Resorts for $240 million, netting a reported paper profit of $100 million.

"I love the gamesmanship," he told Life magazine in 1988. "This may sound strange, but it parallels the game shows I've been involved in."

It was in 1948 that Martin hired Griffin to join his band at Los Angeles' Coconut Grove at $150 a week. With Griffin doing the singing, the band had a smash hit with "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts," a 1949 novelty song sung in a cockney accent.

The band was playing in Las Vegas when Doris Day and her producer husband, Marty Melcher, were in the audience. They recommended him to Warner Bros., which offered a contract. After a bit in "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," starring Day and Gordon MacRae, he had a bigger role with Kathryn Grayson in "So This Is Love." A few more trivial roles followed, then he asked out of his contract.

In 1954, Griffin went to New York where he appeared in a summer replacement musical show on CBS-TV, a revival of "Finian's Rainbow," and a music show on CBS radio. He followed with a few game show-hosting jobs on TV, notably "Play Your Hunch," which premiered in 1958 and ran through the early 1960s. His glibness led to stints as substitute for Jack Paar on "Tonight."

  • James Klatell

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