President Bush offered words of praise Monday for the late Merv Griffin, calling the media mogul and longtime La Quinta resident a “man of innovation and energy” who parlayed entertainment success into a lifetime of business achievement and philanthropy.
Griffin, 82, died Sunday of complications from cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Griffin had lived in La Quinta for 20 years, and was developing a major new resort hotel and real estate development in the Coachella Valley.
“For over half a century, Merv Griffin entertained America,” Bush said. “He was a man of innovation and energy who greeted challenges with laughter and determination. By following his passions and trusting his instincts, Merv became one of our Nation’s best-known and most respected entertainers.
“He introduced Americans to a generation of talent on his talk show, created two of the most successful game shows in history, and led a thriving hospitality business,” he said. “Merv was also a generous leader who gave back to his community, donating millions of dollars to provide abused children with safe haven and brighter futures.”
The billionaire television producer, hotelier and creator of the two most successful syndicated TV game shows ever — “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” — had been at the hospital since July 19 after experiencing a recurrence of the prostate cancer he battled in 1996.
The jovial talk and game show host once said he wanted his epitaph to be, “I won’t be right back after this message.”
Griffin was born July 6, 1925, in San Mateo, near San Francisco.
He started as a singer on radio at age 19 and toured with Freddy Martin and His Orchestra for four years.
He started his own record label, Panda Records, and his self-released “Songs by Merv Griffin” was the first American album recorded on magnetic tape. One of his songs, “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” became a number-one record, selling 3 million copies.
He made a few movies, including “So This Is Love” (1953), during which his open-mouthed kiss with Kathryn Grayson was reportedly the first such kiss shown in theaters.
He began appearing on such TV shows as “The Arthur Murray Dance Party” and “The Jack Paar Show,” and became a mainstay on daytime TV game shows starting in 1958 with “Play Your Hunch,” followed by “Keep Talking” and “Word For Word” on all three networks.
In 1964 he produced “Jeopardy” — and composed its theme song — followed by “Wheel of Fortune,” which has been on the air since 1975.
NBC “Tonight Show” host Jack Paar accidentally blundered onto the live telecast of “Play Your Hunch” one day and was buttonholed into a live interview by Griffin, launching his career as Paar’s substitute host on “Tonight.” That in turn led to “Merv,” a late-night CBS competitor to Johnny Carson that started in 1969.
“Merv” moved to syndication in 1972 as “The Merv Griffin Show,” which aired in various time slots around the nation until 1986. Guests ranged from then-President Richard Nixon to a very young Tom Cruise. He was sometimes criticized for inviting controversial guests onto his show such as Vietnam War critics and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Syndicated television was where Griffin really struck it rich. His production company owned the rights to “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy,” and when he sold the company to Columbia Pictures Television for $250 million, Forbes magazine called him the richest Hollywood performer in history.
He began dabbling in real estate, especially resort hotels, reportedly owning 17 major properties at one time.
He bought the Beverly Hilton Hotel, as well as a hotel in Ireland and casinos in Atlantic City and the Bahamas. He also had a horse-breeding ranch in Carmel Valley and one of the largest motor yachts on the Pacific Coast, and was recently developing a new project in the desert near Palm Springs, a Moroccan-themed subdivision called Griffin Ranch.
He was also developing a new game show, “Merv Griffin’s Crosswords,” until the recurrence of his cancer.
Griffin bought 240 acres of then-worthless desert 25 years ago, land that now makes up the greater part of the posh resort town of La Quinta.
He was an honorary pallbearer for President Ronald Reagan at his funeral in Simi Valley, and a longtime friend of former first lady Nancy Reagan.
Griffin is survived by a son, Tony Griffin, and two grandchildren.
There was no immediate word on if there will be a public memorial service.