The mild-mannered daytime variety-show host let his guests be the stars

By Bruce Fretts
Updated September 06, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Before his recent reemergence on The Rosie O’Donnell Show, Mike Douglas was nervous. The talk-show legend hadn’t made a TV appearance in 13 years. ”I was wondering if the audience would respond,” says Douglas. ”My God, I was pleasantly surprised.”

Douglas was greeted by a standing ovation and received another after serenading O’Donnell with ”You Make Me Feel So Young.” O’Donnell had no doubts about his reception: ”When I was doing press for my show, I told people I used to watch Mike Douglas every day. The response was always ‘Me, too.”’

A lot of people watched The Mike Douglas Show every day during its 1961-82 run. The ex-big-band singer seemed at ease around anyone — and had everyone on his syndicated daytime show. He chatted up seven presidents and, in 1962, introduced a 20-year-old singer named Barbra Streisand. ”She was the first woman I ever saw tuck her slacks into fur-topped boots,” he says. ”She was far-out, as they’d say.” Ten years later, Douglas would score his highest ratings when John Lennon and Yoko Ono cohosted (Douglas shared his show with stars for a week at a time).

Longtime syndicator Westinghouse replaced Douglas with John Davidson in 1980, in an ill-fated attempt to lure a younger audience. (Douglas, 70, dismisses the incident as ”tacky.”) He produced a pared-down show for two more years but struggled to build a network of stations. After a year of doing a talk show for CNN, he retired in 1983.

At that time, the daytime-variety format seemed dead. Dinah! had gone the way of the dinosaur, and Merv Griffin would soon utter his last on-air ”oooh.” Issue-oriented talkers like Donahue dominated the next decade, culminating in a trash-talk genre Douglas calls ”embarrassing.” He praises Oprah Winfrey, however: ”She’s the best thing on TV.”

In fact, Douglas was watching Oprah when he saw a clip from The Nutty Professor, in which Eddie Murphy (as an elderly black woman) declares ”Mike Douglas is the only white man who ever made me moist.” ”I got such a kick out of that,” he says. ”That and Rosie saying tremendous things about me — you get a good feeling when you’re not doing much but practicing golf shots.”

Well, Douglas does a bit more than that. He makes motivational speeches to women’s groups and hangs with his three daughters, five grandkids, and three great-grandkids in Cleveland, where he moved in 1994 with wife Genevieve. Retirement didn’t come easily, though. ”Can you imagine what it’s like being that busy and the next morning the phone’s not ringing?” says Douglas. ”But we’ve adjusted gradually.” He’ll soon release an album of pop standards and may write his autobiography. Would he host another talk show? ”If I could do it a couple days a week, maybe.”

That prospect terrifies O’Donnell: ”If Mike came back, he’d be The King. And I’d be back working at Yuk Yuks.”