Merv Griffin was the former big-band singer who leveraged his career as a popular TV talk-show host into a business empire whose foundations included the creation of the wildly successful syndicated game shows "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!"
Although he was a TV talk-show host for more than two decades, Griffin's most enduring show business claim to fame is creating and producing "Jeopardy!" (launched in 1964) and "Wheel of Fortune" (launched in 1975). Both shows originally aired on NBC and, beginning in the 1980s, became the two most popular syndicated game shows in television history.
For older Americans, Griffin is best remembered as the genial host of "The Merv Griffin Show."
For two decades — the Emmy Award-winning show aired variously on NBC, CBS and, for most of its 1960s-to-1980s run, in syndication — Griffin presided over a wide-ranging gabfest.
Guests as varied as artists Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, writers Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, comedians Richard Pryor and Woody Allen, and film legends Bette Davis and Orson Welles dropped by to chat.
After moving his show to late night on CBS in 1969, Griffin altered the traditional talk-show format by introducing "theme" shows in which he devoted entire programs to a single topic or person. The first was a 90-minute salute to "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles Schulz.
In 1945, he heard about an audition for a piano player at radio station KFRC in San Francisco. When it turned out that the station needed a singer rather than a piano player, he auditioned for that instead.
His voice impressed station officials so much that they put him on as a guest singer on KFRC's nationally syndicated "San Francisco Sketchbook" show the next night.
Two days later, the show changed its name to "The Merv Griffin Show," and young Merv was hosting his own 15-minute radio show five days a week.
KFRC billed him as "America's New Romantic Singing Star."
One of his admirers was bandleader Freddy Martin, who heard Griffin's show over KHJ in Los Angeles and invited him to join his band in 1948.
As a singer with the Freddy Martin Orchestra from 1948 to 1952, Griffin recorded numerous songs, including "Wilhelmina," "Never Been Kissed" and "Am I in Love." His hit "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts," for which he was paid only $50 to record, sold 3 million copies.
In 1952, Warner Bros. star Doris Day saw Griffin singing in a Las Vegas hotel and a screen test was arranged for him at the studio, which signed him to a long-term contract.
But after two lackluster years as a Warners contract player, Griffin bought out the remainder of his contract, moved to New York, where he appeared in a short-lived 1955 Broadway revival of the musical-comedy "Finian's Rainbow," and focused his professional attention on television.
He was hosting "Play Your Hunch" when he began substitute-hosting for Jack Paar once a week on "The Tonight Show" in early 1962.
Griffin proved to be a natural in the host's chair and went on to guest-host "The Tonight Show" for a number of weeks that summer, after Paar quit the show and before Carson took over in the fall.
From the beginning of "The Merv Griffin Show" in daytime on NBC in 1962 to its end in syndication in 1986, Griffin hosted more than 5,500 shows and interviewed more than 25,000 guests.