A Legend Who Loved Ireland

By Tom Deignan, Contributor
October / November 2007

In his 2002 memoir Merv: Making the Good Life Last, show business legend Merv Griffin recalled the moment when it seemed he’d finally made it in the entertainment world.  People started looking at him differently, in good ways and bad.  His father’s reaction, however, was what fascinated Griffin. “You did good, buddy, keep it up,” Griffin recalled his dad saying. “In the manner of a typical Irish Catholic father of his generation, my dad was gruff but proud,” Griffin wrote.

To say that Griffin did well in his life is an incredible understatement. He was a musician, talk show host, prodigious TV producer, hotel mogul and even became a successful owner in the world of horse racing.  Among his horses was one named Cee’s Irish, trained by Doug O’Neil. Merv Griffin died in August of prostate cancer in Los Angeles, at the age of 82.

Griffin is perhaps best known for his TV talk show from the 1960s and 1970s which touched on all topics of the day.  Griffin also developed two of the most famous game shows of all time: Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy.  Ever the shrewd businessman, he sold the game shows along with his production company to Coca-Cola in 1986 for $250 million. Griffin, however, retained the rights to both shows’ theme songs, which he wrote himself. He was paid in royalties every time each show aired, which amounted to millions of dollars over the years.  Griffin was recently said to have a net worth of around $1.6 billion.

As The New York Times noted after his death: “With his easy smile and low-key manner, he seemed the eternally jovial Irishman; few of those around him, much less his fans, thought of him as the entrepreneur he was.”

Griffin once said: “I was buying things and nobody knew. I never told anybody, because I noticed that when you walk down the street and everybody knows you’re rich, they don’t talk to you.”

Born July 6, 1925, in San Mateo, California, Griffin was playing piano by age 4, and in his teens found a musical outlet at his parish church, where he joined the choir. He was said to have performed the music for an entire Mass, and would also earn money singing for weddings and funerals.

By the 1950s he had made a name for himself as a singer on radio and with the Freddy Martin Orchestra.  But it was on his TV show – which laid the groundwork for future stars such as Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey – that Griffin reached the masses.

He later worked behind the scenes, using his personal obsession with word puzzles to develop the game shows Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. He also became a successful real estate and hotel developer.

Following Griffin’s death, David Bender, who co-wrote Griffin’s memoir, wrote that Griffin “was a man who had a profound and significant impact on our country and our culture in ways that are still being felt today.”

How? First and foremost, Griffin is credited with giving first breaks to Woody Allen, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, John Denver, Diane Keaton, Whitney Houston and Jerry Seinfeld.

“It was Merv, not Johnny Carson, who first put every one of them on the air,” Bender said. He added: “In 1965, when virtually no public opposition to the war in Vietnam was being seen on American television, Merv interviewed 93-year-old British Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell who stunned him by declaring that America needed to ‘give up the habit of invading peaceful countries and torturing them.’”

Griffin blended serious issues with entertainment.  “As he did throughout his life,” Bender said, “Merv used his Irish humor like a surgeon’s scalpel, deftly and with a minimum of blood.”

Griffin is survived by his son Tony and two grandchildren. ♦

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