THE DVD SHELF: Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Mel Brooks and More on "The Merv Griffin Show"

News   THE DVD SHELF: Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Mel Brooks and More on "The Merv Griffin Show" This month's column looks at the long-running talk-show "The Merv Griffin Show," which was based in the heart of the theatre district throughout its formative years.

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Merv Griffin (1925-2007) was one of those late-40's band singers — with the Freddy Martin Orchestra — who drifted, looking for a career, after the bands dried up. Armed with a semi-familiar name thanks to one-hit record (the 1950 novelty song, "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts"), he spent some time at Warner Bros. before winding up as an NBC game show host in 1955. He struck up a relationship with "Tonight Show" host Jack Parr; when Parr accidentally wandered onto Griffin's (live) game show set, Griffin turned from the game and interviewed Parr as he walked through. Griffin became an occasional guest host on the "Tonight Show," although when Parr retired the job went to Johnny Carson. At the same time — the same day in 1962, in fact, that Carson took over — NBC gave Griffin his own daytime talk show. This was cancelled six months later, but NBC invited him back to do another game show — this time as his own producer.

In 1965, Westinghouse offered Griffin the opportunity to do another talk show, to be syndicated (as opposed to appearing on one of the big three networks); again with Griffin himself owning the show. This turned out to be an unexpected benefit; while Westinghouse had stations in several big cities, Griffin could sell the show to stations in markets like New York and Los Angeles. Without being beholden to studio heads (as at NBC, CBS or ABC), he could proceed without worrying about oversight, sponsors or censorship. He could also be scheduled in different time slots in different markets; "The Merv Griffin Show," over its 24-year run, was scheduled in prime time, day time and late night at various times in various markets.

The second incarnation of "The Merv Griffin Show" went on the air in 1965, initially broadcasting from the Little Theatre on West 44th St. (now the Helen Hayes). His on-air sidekick was an unusual choice: Arthur Treacher, the 70-year-old British eccentric dancer/comedian. (The lanky Treacher was best known in the States from his long service as a British butler in Hollywood movies, including some in which he danced with Shirley Temple. His recognition from "The Merv Griffin Show" was strong enough for his name to be used for a fast food chain, Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips.)

The Griffin show differed from its competitors (the "Tonight Show," Mike Douglas, Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett) in that the 90-minute format — and the lack of studio interference — allowed him freedom that his peers did not have. His initial show, for example, featured both raucous comedian Phyllis Diller and Japanese commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the air attack on Pearl Harbor. Griffin was an easy and pleasant interviewer, but his questioning could grow pointed at times, and he didn't skirt controversy. There were about 4,500 episodes of "The Merv Griffin Show 1962-1986," less than half of which have been located. A group called Reelin' in the Years Productions controls the rights and have now assembled a 12-disc box set containing excerpts from 44 episodes.

Merv Griffin
Merv Griffin

The show and the box set feature an impressively large range of guests from varied fields. Laurence Olivier sat for a major interview in 1982; Orson Welles taped a full interview one night in 1985, went home, and died of a heart attack before dawn. The show is very strong on comedians: Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Bill Cosby, Steve Martin and early appearances by Woody Allen, Richard Pryor and Jerry Seinfeld (from 1981). There is even a two-part program, filmed in Venice, Italy, in 1979, featuring Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Anne Bancroft and Gene Hackman.

Movie stars include Bette Davis, John Wayne, Ingrid Bergman, Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty, and even Jayne Mansfield (with her two-year-old, Mariska Hargitay, now of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," climbing on her lap). Assorted guests ranged from Salvador Dali and Norman Rockwell to Muhammad Ali and Rosa Parks. And where else would you find Tallulah Bankhead, the famous actress and Giants baseball fan, and Willie Mays together? There's also a 1983 interview with record producer Clive Davis, who introduces a 19-year-old singer whom he had just signed and who wouldn't release an album for another two years. Whitney Houston sings "Home" from The Wiz, and Merv says "You won't forget that name." Other musical guests include Harry Belafonte, Dionne Warwick, Lionel Hampton, Leslie Uggams, John Denver, Glen Campbell, Carole King, Isaac Hayes and Kris Kristofferson.

The Little Theatre location, directly between Sardi's and the St. James Theatre, placed Griffin at the heart of Broadway (although he later moved his operations to Los Angeles). On the rare occasion when a guest turned out to be a no-show, we are told, the producers would walk next door to Sardi's, look for a celebrity — there was always someone interesting dining — and entice them to be a "special" guest. That said, the Griffin Archives must have a significant amount of theatre guests; it is known that Ethel Merman, Gwen Verdon, Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Karen Morrow and Tammy Grimes appeared on the show. None of them, alas, are included in this box set.

There are, however, three cutting-edge interviews from 1967 of historical relevance: one with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., eight months before his assassination; another with Robert F. Kennedy, ten months before his assassination; and a third with Richard M. Nixon just before the start of his 1968 campaign, in which Griffin asks him how he planned to overcome his reputation as a loser in the 1960 presidential race and the 1962 California gubernatorial race. Plus Gore Vidal ten days after Kent State, demanding Nixon's resignation. It was not the sort of thing you'd see on network TV back in 1970.

By 1980 Griffin and his talk show formula was growing outmoded, attracting an aging audience, and he finally ceased operations in 1986. But all through the years he had continued his sideline as creator and producer of game shows. Two of them became enormous successes: "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune." (That catchy "Jeopardy" jingle, "Think!," was composed by Griffin and has earned him his own fortune in royalties.) Both eventually ended their runs on NBC, after which Griffin relaunched them into syndication. This proved so lucrative that he created an entertainment industry empire, which he sold in 1986 for $250 million (back when $250 million was a lot of money). Griffin went on to become a major wheeler-dealer; at one time, he owned the Beverly Hilton Hotel, the Resorts Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City and Paradise Island in the Bahamas. By 2003, he was estimated to be worth $1.2 billion dollars. Pretty good for an ex-band singer. (Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)

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