Merv Griffin has died. In 2002, I had the great privilege and joy of helping him to write his last memoir, Merv: Making the Good Life Last. I don't use the word "joy" casually here, because the good life he exemplified was more than one of riches and material achievement, although he certainly earned his share of those. No, what I'm talking about is the pure joy he found in living -- what I called his "joie de Merv." It was that same infectious quality he shared with American audiences for 23 years on The Merv Griffin Show.
Today he is being remembered as many things: a boy singer with the big bands, an avuncular talk show host, a prolific creator of game shows like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, and an enormously successful businessman and hotelier.
But here's what you don't know about Merv Griffin and what you absolutely should: he was a man who had a profound and significant impact on our country and our culture in ways that are still being felt today.
What? Merv Griffin? The perennially wide-eyed talk show host whose supposed refrain of "ooooh" to his guests was widely parodied back in the day as proof of his insubstantiality? Could someone whose own sidekick (the redoubtable Arthur Treacher) dubbed him "that dear boy" possibly have had an important and lasting effect on our society?
As Merv was fond of saying: "You betcha!"
Let me tell you why.
- In 1962, while guest-hosting for Jack Paar, he gave a little known comedy writer and struggling stand-up comic named Woody Allen his first break on national television. Over the next two decades he did the same thing for George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, John Denver, Diane Keaton, Whitney Houston and Jerry Seinfeld -- again it was Merv, not Johnny Carson, who first put every one of them on the air.
- In 1965, when virtually no public opposition to the war in Vietnam was being seen on American television, Merv interviewed 93 year old British Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell who stunned him by declaring that America needed to "give up the habit of invading peaceful countries and torturing them." In the firestorm of criticism that followed the Russell interview, Merv stood his ground: "...nothing would be easier for me than to book this show with people who have ideas that are carbon copies of my own, or no ideas at all. But I don't think it's an easy world or that my primary responsibility on this program is to take it easy. You'll continue on this show to see people of every persuasion who have hard things to say, and I don't think you can get at any truth without hammering out on the anvil of everyone's right to disagree."
- In addition to launching the career of Richard Pryor, Merv was unique (and way ahead of his time) in providing a national platform for black artists and activists including Dick Gregory, Harry Belafonte, Godfrey Cambridge, Mahalia Jackson, Muhammad Ali (when he was still Cassius Clay) and, famously, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967, the year before his death.
- Although it seems impossible to believe in an era when Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith can dominate the airwaves and when an "in-depth" interview is 5-7 minutes long, Merv gave countless hours of airtime to writers and thinkers who had nothing to promote other than their own ideas. The list reads like a "Who's Who" of arts, science and literature: John Lennon, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, James Jones, James Michener, Truman Capote, Salvador Dali, Will & Ariel Durant, Irwin Shaw, Andy Warhol, Norman Mailer, Buckminster Fuller, Jimmy Breslin, Jerzy Kosinski, Alex Haley, et al.
- Merv's interviews with politicians were remarkable for their breadth and scope, from Robert F. Kennedy wrestling with his opposition to the war yet still reluctant to challenge a sitting Democratic president, to disgraced former Vice President Spiro Agnew, who criticized his old boss (the similarly disgraced Richard Nixon) for being "wrong" in leaving "the battlefield in Vietnam when we should have accomplished a victory." Although his political guests included Nixon (whom he never liked), Hubert Humphrey, Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan (who, along with his wife Nancy, was a close friend), Merv was deeply and justifiably proud of the fact that audiences never knew what his own political beliefs really were.
- When CBS put him up against Johnny Carson in 1969, Merv's instinctual resistance to petty authority (he was always happiest when he was his own boss) was tested constantly. He bristled when CBS censors put a black box over Abbie Hoffman's red, white & blue shirt during their entire 35 minute interview and, a week later, he tweaked the network by putting a similar black box over his own monologue as he said, "It has just been agreed that I am to be the sole judge of censorship problems on my show, if they should occur in the future." As he kept talking, the box kept expanding, until Merv, now on his hands and knees peering out from under it said, "I think I have some power to regulate and control what is to be shown and what isn't." On the word "power," Merv's crew made the whole screen go black and all that could be heard was his disembodied voice saying, "That's all I have to say. May I have the network back please?" As he did throughout his life, Merv used his Irish humor like a surgeon's scalpel, deftly and with a minimum of blood.
- It was during the run of his CBS show (1969-1972) that opposition to the Vietnam War reached its highest point. Merv continued to book controversial guests like Jane Fonda and Muhammad Ali, despite the network's constant pressure on him to remain "balanced." He received a memo that said, "In the past six weeks, thirty-four antiwar statements have been made on your show and only one pro-war statement, by John Wayne." Merv fired back immediately, "Find me someone as famous as John Wayne who supports the war and I'll book him."
He was a man of principle and purpose who, when he had a national platform, used it to make a real difference in the life of his country. And he did it all with style, grace and wit -- qualities that, sadly, are in short supply in public life today.
For those of us who were lucky enough to know him off camera, it was that "joie de Merv" -- the twinkle in his eye, the warmth of his smile, the generosity of his spirit -- that we will miss the most. I mourn him today as a friend and I'm sad that we won't see his like again.
But he wouldn't want this to end on a downbeat note, so let me share with you what Merv wrote at the end of "Making the Good Life Last":
"...I've never been afraid of death. If you live your life in fear of dying, you might as well be dead already. So lately, in idle moments, I've been toying with what I'd like my headstone to read. (You don't think I'm going to let anybody else write my last line, do you?)
There's always the hypochondriac's epitaph: "I told you I was sick."
Or perhaps the talk show host's final exit line would be more appropriate:
"I will not be right back after this message."
Hey, you know what? I've just figured out what I want it to say:
Joie de Merv.