Richard Dawson, who has died at age 79, was a unique TV personality, someone who raised his status from game-show regular and sitcom supporting player on the strength of his often sharp sarcasm, dour poker-face, and naughty, mischievous, even rebellious nature.
Dawson started out a British-born comedian, a successful stage and sketch comic, who smuggled himself into American show business via sitcoms. He made guest appearances on series such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, but snagged his highest profile role as the wiseguy Corporal Newkirk on Hogan’s Heroes. The unlikely sitcom –a wacky half-hour set in a World War II German prison camp — made him a familiar face, but didn’t display Dawson’s full talents. Here he discusses the early controversy surrounding Hogan’s, and the development of the accent he used on the show.
After Hogan, Dawson signed on as part of the celebrity panel on Match Game, a Mark Goodson-Bill Todman production, that combined a simple yet compelling quiz component (civilians had to match their answers to a fill-in-the-blank question).
It was raised several levels by its host, the sly ad-libber Gene Reyburn, and a clutch of regulars that included Dawson, the equally marvelous Charles Nelson Reilly, and Brett Somers.
On Match Game, Dawson revealed the persona that made him famous: He was fast and funny, but also intriguingly moody. He frowned a lot, and the corners of his mouth turned down. He must have realized that, in the midst of all the silliness around him, the way to stand out was to be poker-faced and still. It worked. Sometimes even the audience begged him to smile:
In 1976, Goodson hired him as host of Family Feud and Dawson’s fame took off, all out of proportion for a mere game-show host. Seemingly energized by running his own set, Dawson became a braying show-boater. He became famous for kissing female contestants on the lips, and his improvised reactions to contestants’ flubs were the work of a man in full control.
Eventually, rumors of Dawson’s dark side surfaced. It was said that he could be temperamental, that he drank excessively, that he wanted to be more than a game-show personality. He got one good shot at movie stardom when he played a venal version of himself in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Running Man:
(You really should savor Dawson’s performance in this film; check out an extended clip here.)
In a way, Dawson’s career was a precursor to the current one of Craig Ferguson (overseas performer comes here, gets cast in sitcom, becomes both known for acerbic wit and an American citizen). But whereas Ferguson made the leap to talk-show host and gave full range to his intellect and wit, Dawson — who at the height of his fame was mentioned as a possible successor to Johnny Carson — never quite achieved the prominence he wanted, and that his talent deserved.
Still, he lives on in cable reruns and in our memories as one of the sharpest minds to work in game shows, and will remain a fascinatingly complex personality.