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Prostate cancer
fells Merv Griffin

Prostate cancer
fells Merv Griffin

Merv Griffin never stopped working, not until the very end. When he entered a hospital a month ago, he was working on the first week of production of a new syndicated game show called Merv Griffin's Crosswords.

''My father was a visionary,'' his son, Tony Griffin, said in a statement Sunday after the 82-year-old's death from prostate cancer. ''He loved business and continued his many projects and holdings even while hospitalized.''

From his beginning as a $100-a-week radio singer, Griffin became a sometime film actor, TV talk-show host, and creator of a game-show empire that landed him on the Forbes list of the richest Americans. When Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, two shows he invented and produced, became the hottest on television, he sold their rights to the Columbia Pictures Television Unit for $250 million, retaining a share of the profits. He continued to receive royalties for the popular Jeopardy! theme song, which he wrote.

But Griffin was nowhere near ready to retire. He invested the sale money in treasury bonds, stocks, and other investments, then went into real estate and other ventures because ''I was never so bored in my life,'' he said in an interview.

''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 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, N.J., 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.''

In recent years Griffin also rated frequent mentions in the sports pages as a successful race horse owner. His colt Stevie Wonderboy, named for entertainer Stevie Wonder, won the $1.5 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile in 2005. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recalled that his very first U.S. talk-show appearance was on The Merv Griffin Show in 1974.

''We became good friends, and Merv has always been a big part of my success,'' the former actor and bodybuilding champion said.

''This is heartbreaking, not just for those of us who loved Merv personally, but for everyone around the world who has known Merv through his music, his television shows, and his business,'' said longtime friend Nancy Reagan said in a statement.

Mervyn Edward Griffin Jr. was born in San Mateo, south of San Francisco, the son of a stockbroker. His aunt Claudia Robinson taught him to play piano at 4, and soon he was staging shows on the back porch of the family home.

''Every Saturday I had a show, recruiting all the kids in the block as either stagehands, actors and audience, or sometimes all three,'' he wrote in his 1980 autobiography. ''I was the producer, always the producer.''

After studying at San Mateo Junior College (now the College of San Mateo) and the University of San Francisco, Griffin quit school to apply for a job as pianist at radio station KFRC in San Francisco. The station needed a vocalist instead. He auditioned and was hired. Griffin, billed as ''the young romantic voice of radio,'' attracted the interest of RKO studio boss William Dozier, who was visiting San Francisco with his wife, Joan Fontaine.

''As soon as I walked in their hotel room, I could see their faces fall,'' the singer recalled. He weighed 235 pounds. Shortly afterward singer Joan Edwards told him: ''Your voice is terrific, but the blubber has got to go.''

Griffin slimmed down, and he would spend the rest of his life adding and taking off weight. In 1948, Freddy Martin hired Griffin to join his band at Los Angeles's Cocoanut Grove at $150 a week. With Griffin singing, the band had a smash hit with ''I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Cocoanuts,'' 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. After a bit part in By the Light of the Silvery Moon, he had a bigger role with Kathryn Grayson in ''So This Is Love.'' A few more trivial roles followed before he asked to be released from 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 a substitute for Jack Paar on Tonight.

When Paar retired in 1962, Griffin was considered a prime candidate to replace him. Johnny Carson was chosen instead. NBC gave Griffin a daytime version of Tonight, but the show was canceled for being ''too sophisticated'' for the housewife audience.

In 1965, Westinghouse Broadcasting introduced The Merv Griffin Show in syndicated TV, and Griffin had at last found the forum for his talents. He never underestimated the intelligence of his audience, offering figures such as Bertrand Russell, Pablo Casals, and Will and Ariel Durant, as well as movie stars and entertainers. Meanwhile, Griffin sought new enterprises for his production company. A lifelong crossword puzzle fan, he devised a Word for Word game show in 1963. It faded after one season. His wife, Julann, suggested another show.

''Julann's idea was a twist on the usual question-answer format of the quiz shows of the Fifties,'' he wrote in his autobiography, Merv. ''Her idea was to give the contestants the answer, and they had to come up with the appropriate question.''

Jeopardy!, which began in 1964, became a huge moneymaker for Griffin, as did the more conventional Wheel of Fortune, which started in 1975. Griffin and Julann Elizabeth Wright were married in 1958, and a son, Anthony, was born the following year. The couple divorced in 1973 because of ''irreconcilable differences.''

''It was a pivotal time in my career, one of uncertainty and constant doubt,'' he wrote in the autobiography. ''So much attention was being focused on me that my marriage felt the strain.''

He never remarried. But for several years he was frequently seen in the company of Eva Gabor, who died in 1995. In 1991, Griffin was sued by two men in separate cases involving sexual harassment and palimony. Rumors about his sexual orientation dogged him for years. (Bob Thomas, AP, with additional reporting by The Advocate)

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