Merv Griffin, creator of the game shows Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, has died at age 82.
Bloomberg News quotes a spokesperson as saying Griffin died of “prostate cancer that spread to other organs in an ‘unexpected and immediate’ manner.”
Griffin was a multi-talent: pop singer, actor (Bloomberg says he shared “cinema’s first open-mouthed kiss” with actress Kathryn Grayson in 1953’s So This Is Love), talk show host, hotelier and casino owner, real estate mogul, and, of course, game show czar. He and his wife created Jeopardy! in 1964 and, with a few interruptions, the show is still on the air today, hosted by Alex Trebek.
I met Merv Griffin briefly after appearing in the 1996 Jeopardy! Olympic Tournament of Champions. (The wrap party was held at what was then called Merv Griffin’s Beverly Hilton — he owned the former Conrad Hilton property from 1987-2003.) He breezed through the party in brilliant white pants and shoes, waving genially to Jeop staffers. I was introduced as the current Tournament of Champions champ, and in our short chat he was cheery, upbeat, and pretty much exactly his talk-show-host self.
Seeing Jeopardy! up close gave me an appreciation for the art of game show success, Griffin-style. The staff told contestants frankly that though we might think we were there to answer questions, the real secret was the participation of home viewers: giving them the chance to answer and giving them the chance to sweat out decisions (which is what the Daily Double and Final Jeopardy wagers are all about).
Having a clever game idea is one thing, but it takes a kind of emotional genius to make it click for viewers. Griffin had that emotional genius in abundance throughout his game show career and all his careers.
So long, Mr. Griffin, and thanks for creating a show that in a small way, or maybe not so small a way, changed my life. If nothing else, it gave me the chance to interview Ken Jennings.
The opening titles of Merv’s official site (at Merv.com) run through his many industries and accomplishments — to the tune of his old talk show theme. (His 142-foot yacht, The Griff, has its own website.) For Merv on Merv, see this transcript of his appearance last year on the Larry King show.