The ''Jeopardy'' creator leaves an unforgettable mark on TV history

By Ty Burr
August 17, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Big-band crooner. Emmy-winning talk-show host. Game-show creator. Theme-song composer. Hotel magnate. Billionaire. Bon vivant. He assembled perhaps the single most unusual résumé in post-WWII show business, but Merv Griffin, who died Aug. 12 at age 82 in Los Angeles, made it look like utter serendipity. At the time of his death, he was not only one of the richest people in America and the creator of two game shows that are pop culture touchstones but also a man who met, talked with, and was genuinely liked by everybody who was anybody — and many who weren’t.

”Other executives have more money,” says Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, ”but they don’t seem to derive the joy out of life that Merv did. He wasn’t somebody who was accumulating wealth just to accumulate wealth. He was enjoying the thrill of the ride.”

Born in 1925 to a San Mateo, Calif., tennis player and his wife, Griffin was aiming for a showbiz career by his teens. (The future titan liked to make up games with his sister during long car trips.) By the late 1940s, Griffin was crooning ballads with the Freddy Martin Orchestra; in 1950, he sang a ridiculous novelty called ”I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” — and it went straight to No. 1. Clearly a multitasker, he soon embarked on a brief movie career, with a featured romantic role in 1953’s So This Is Love. Ultimately, though, it was the nascent medium of TV that intrigued him. After the quick-witted young talent substituted for Tonight Show host Jack Paar in 1962, there were rumors he might become a full-time replacement. NBC went with Johnny Carson instead, and gave Griffin his own daytime series, which quickly went bust.

Still, he learned an important lesson: If you’re going to be on TV, it’s best to be your own boss. In 1963, he set up Merv Griffin Productions and soon sold a game show to NBC. Its gimmick — contestants were given an answer and must come up with the question — came from his wife, Julann, but Griffin developed the idea. He dubbed it Jeopardy!, and even wrote the tick-tocking musical theme, a universally recognized ditty that had earned him an estimated $80 million by the time he died.

In 1965, he launched the syndicated Merv Griffin Show, which won 11 Emmys — including two for its host — over the course of its 21-year run. The entire world seemed to take a seat on Merv’s couch — Martin Luther King Jr., Abbie Hoffman, Rose Kennedy, Hank Aaron, and countless others stopped by for a laugh and a chat. While he never challenged Carson’s hegemony (a brief 1969 relocation to late-night in an effort to go head-to-head with The Tonight Show tanked), Griffin ruled daytime with affable aplomb. It’s nearly impossible to overestimate the legacy that Griffin left behind when The Merv Griffin Show ended in 1986. Fellow Emmy winners like Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres were clearly paying homage to his friendly, conversational style when they launched their own successful gabfests. In the week following Griffin’s death, DeGeneres announced that she would dedicate her upcoming season to Griffin, O’Donnell posted a heartfelt poem on her blog (”he always made me happy/like millions of others/i am missing merv”), and Craig Ferguson admitted that he studied old tapes of Griffin when he landed his gig on CBS’ The Late Late Show.

As his hosting duties ended in 1986, Griffin was hardly content to spend his postshow years lounging by the pool. He went into tycoon mode, selling his entertainment empire — which at that point had grown to include two more of his creations, the hit hoofing contest Dance Fever and the phenomenally successful game show Wheel of Fortune — to Coca-Cola for $250 million. He then embarked on a hotel-buying spree that included the Beverly Hilton, where he sometimes lived. Like a certain daytime TV acolyte, he even tussled with Donald Trump — in this case, over ownership of Resorts International, the troubled company that he twice guided through Chapter 11. Griffin, whose personal worth was recently reported as $1.6 billion, clearly had the Midas touch.

Even when things got bumpy, Griffin managed to stay above the fray. While he squired Eva Gabor for many years after his 1976 divorce from Julann, two lawsuits launched years of speculation about his sexuality: In 1991, a former male employee of Griffin’s filed a palimony suit, claiming that they lived together before Griffin cut off promised financial support. It was followed by Fever host Deney Terrio’s sexual-harassment suit against Griffin that same year. Both cases were dismissed.

Griffin never directly addressed the rumors — in 2005 he quipped to The New York Times, ”I tell everybody that I’m a quartre-sexual. I will do anything with anybody for a quarter” — and, frankly, he seemed too busy to care. In 2003, he published a memoir titled Merv: Making the Good Life Last. Before his death, the puzzle addict was prepping his final game show, Merv Griffin’s Crosswords, which premieres in syndication on Sept. 10. No coda could be more appropriate. Says Trebek, ”The man had 60 years of success.” As Griffin himself told Larry King in 1990, ”Retirement is death.” After one hell of a ride, he’s finally done working. — Additional reporting by Archana Ram and Tanner Stransky