Merv: Making the Good Life Lastby David Bender
Merv Griffin will always be remembered as one of America's most beloved show business figures. With his trademark charm and business savvy, Merv built a life that defined success. From his start as a band singer, to his twenty-three years on television as host of the Emmy Award-winning Merv Griffin Show, and through his entrepreneurial years, Merv lived the/i>
Merv Griffin will always be remembered as one of America's most beloved show business figures. With his trademark charm and business savvy, Merv built a life that defined success. From his start as a band singer, to his twenty-three years on television as host of the Emmy Award-winning Merv Griffin Show, and through his entrepreneurial years, Merv lived the American Dream. Perhaps his most enduring legacy, though, is his creation of the two most successful syndicated game shows in television history, Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune.
Merv: Making the Good Life Last is the quintessential Horatio Alger story of a young man born into modest circumstances who, through hard work, unshakable self-confidence, and an unfailingly positive attitude, dreams his way to the top.
Only to retire and do it again.
In this brilliant, funny, and revealing memoir, full of great stories and even better advice, one of America's most beloved and popular show business figures tells the story of his "retirement" years, in which he made billions and became a bigger celebrity than ever. Merv: Making the Good Life Last is a great American success story, a tribute to a wonderful life, and great entertainment for Griffin's many generations of fans, who will never forget him or his legacy.
- Gallery Books
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- 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.80(d)
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Dreams
When I was five years old, my family lost our house to the bank and we were forced to move. It was the height of the Depression and my father's job in a sporting goods store wasn't enough to keep up the mortgage payments. We lived (and I was born) in San Mateo, a bedroom community twenty miles south of San Francisco. Even today I can remember the exact layout of that house: my sister's bedroom on the top floor, my parents and I on the second floor, the big kitchen that always seemed to be filled with people. Somewhere I still have the picture of me and my sister, Barbara (who was two years older), sitting together on the front stairs looking sad, while we watched our possessions go out the door.
As it turns out, we did leave a few things in the house. One item that apparently remained behind was our original toilet seat. I heard recently that it was sold at an auction to benefit a charity in San Mateo. You know those signs "George Washington Slept Here"?
I can only imagine how they described it in the catalogue: "Merv Griffin Here."
I still remember crying when we finally left our house. And believe me, those early childhood experiences stick with you in a powerful way. I'm certain that because I was a Depression baby, there have been times as an adult when I've placed far too much value on material things. That's an instinct I've had to wrestle with my entire life. And although it's taken me seven decades to do it, I honestly believe that I've finally got it beat.
We moved in with my maternal grandmother and her two other daughters, Claudia and Helen, both of whom were older than my mother. How can I describe my mother and her sisters? Each of them had brown hair and deep brown eyes. None of them wore makeup they didn't need it. When people see a picture of my mother as a young woman, they frequently remark on her strong resemblance to the actress Anne Baxter (remember All About Eve?). My Aunt Helen was a gifted ballet dancer with a lithe dancer's body who once performed with the legendary Isadora Duncan. She moved through a room and across a stage with incredible grace. Aunt Claudia had the most luminous skin; she looked strikingly like one of the angels you'd see depicted on a holy card.
Even before we moved in, Aunt Claudia had begun teaching me how to play the piano. I'd started at the age of four when I was still so tiny that I could only play standing up, my small fingers banging away on the keys. I was her little "Buddy" (the nickname my mother had given me to minimize confusion between my father, Mervyn Sr., and me), and she was my best friend. When I wasn't practicing the piano, Claudia would sometimes take me fishing at Coyote Point, not far from our house. We'd sit out on the end of the wharf all day catching jacksmelt, the small silver and blue fish that populated the San Francisco Bay. Those were idyllic days; the sky was bluer and the sun warmer. Looking back, I know how lucky I am to have grown up in such a close family.
Probably as a result of my family's financial worries, I became a very entrepreneurial child. The first things I ever did, I didn't consider to be jobs at all they were just fun to do. At four, I had a magazine route, selling The Saturday Evening Post and Liberty door-to-door. I carried them in a little white canvas bag on my side. I mowed our neighbors' lawns. Years later, when I was in my twenties and already an established performer, that particular job experience would come in handy. I had become great friends with Frank Loesser, the brilliant composer who wrote Guys and Dolls. On Saturdays he would invite me to his house to rehearse his songs with him. But he also had a not-so-hidden agenda. Every week, without fail, he'd look out at his yard and say, "That lousy gardener didn't show up again. Would you help me cut the lawn, Merv?" And every week, without fail, I'd cut his damn lawn. Still, it was worth it just to spend time with him.
At seven, I decided to start my own two-penny newspaper, The Whispering Winds. It covered all of the breaking news in our corner of San Mateo. I ran it off on something called a hectograph, which used a gooey purple substance similar to Jell-O. By the time I got the paper out every day, my skin had taken on a definite purplish hue. (Picture a kid in a Barney costume and you'll get the idea.)
I was like one of those young newsboys in the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, running everywhere, spreading truth to all the neighbors, whether they liked it or not. Once I included some gossip about the people who lived next door to us. They bought up all thirty copies of the paper before canceling their subscription. My journalistic career lasted until the day I printed an off-color joke told to me by an older kid. I was too young to understand the joke, but the neighbors got it and they were not amused. Our phone rang off the hook with cancellation orders and that marked the end of The Whispering Winds.
Larry King often calls me the "Merv of All Trades." He doesn't know the half of it. Growing up, I had other jobs including setting up pins in a bowling alley (I was once "double-balled" before I could get out of the way, a bowler released his second ball and I became the spare); selling war bonds on street corners (my rhyming patter was very effective I was the world's first rapper); and selling Christmas wreaths to the wealthy residents of Hillsborough, an affluent community north of San Mateo. I worked right out of the phone book: "Excuse me, Mrs. Van Smythe, I was passing by today and I noticed that your beautiful home on Maple Street doesn't have any holiday decorations up yet. I'm sure you're very busy, but it just so happens that I have some very lovely wreaths that I'd be happy to bring by and show you." If they already had one, I just apologized and moved on to the next name in the book. There's an old Irish term for this we call it "chutzpah."
After several years of piano lessons, Aunt Claudia knew that I had gone way beyond what she could teach me herself. Instead of being proprietary about her favorite student, Claudia loved me enough to push me out of the nest. She and my mother arranged for me to study with a trained classical teacher, Madame Siemmens, who taught at Mercy High School, a private girls school in nearby Burlingame. I eventually outgrew her as well, and not a minute too soon she used to rap my fingers with her ruler. After Madame Siemmens, I took lessons at a music conservatory and studied under a gifted man named Lesley Growe, who taught me to play some of the great classical piano pieces.
Although I couldn't know it then, the experience of regularly going in to San Francisco as a piano student would soon play an important part in my relationship with Aunt Claudia.
All through grammar school, I'd race home in the afternoon and shout, "Aunt Claudia, I'm home!" But starting around the time I was thirteen, I'd call out her name and, quite often, she wouldn't answer. Then I'd knock on her bedroom door: "Aunt Claudia?" Nothing. So I'd quietly turn the knob and push the door open a crack. There she was, kneeling on the floor in front of a large picture of the Sacred Heart, her body swaying slightly as she murmured her prayers. This generally lasted for about an hour. And no matter how many times I looked in on her she never seemed to hear me. I'd usually just shut the door quietly and wait for her to come out. When she emerged, she was invariably glowing, as if she'd just had the most profound religious experience right there in our little house in San Mateo.
Eventually I asked my mother about my aunt's strange ritual. She told Barbara and me not to mention it to anyone, including Claudia. She reminded us that as a girl, Aunt Claudia's only ambition was to enter a convent, but my grandmother wouldn't let her go.
After a few months of keeping watch on her, I came home one afternoon and found a note on the kitchen table: "Please don't worry. I must be about my father's business." I recognized the quote it was Luke 2:49 but the import of it didn't really register until my mother got home. We waited for two days without a word and everyone was frantic with worry. My father was getting ready to call the police (Chief Burke was a family friend), when the wall phone rang in the kitchen. I ran to answer it it was Aunt Claudia. She'd walked the eighteen miles from our house all the way in to San Francisco, stopping only to sleep in the Daly City cemetery.
For the past day she had been wandering the streets, preaching the gospel to anyone who would listen. I begged her to stay on the phone and talk to my mother, but she hung up. I flashed the receiver (something you can't do anymore) and the operator came on the line. "Yes, sir. May I help you?" I lowered my voice and said, "This is Chief of Police Burke. Give me the location of the last call on this line." "Yes, sir. Just a moment." A few seconds later she came back on the line the call had been placed from a phone booth in central San Francisco.
The next morning I got up at six o'clock and took the bus into San Francisco. Fortunately, my time spent studying piano had also given me a working knowledge of the city's geography. I quickly found the phone booth, then I just started walking in wider and wider circles until I found the closest Catholic church. I sat through two Masses and, suddenly, there was Claudia, coming down the aisle carrying a large cross with a figure of Jesus on it. She stopped at the communion rail and knelt down, placing the cross beside her. I went up, knelt next to her and said softly, "It's me, Aunt Claudia. Buddy." She just bowed her head and began sobbing. I cried with her. Finally, I helped her to her feet and we went to a nearby breakfast room to talk. She described her experiences on the street how the sailors would pass her by and jeer because she was preaching for peace, at a time when the entire country was preparing for our entry into World War II. I listened uncritically to everything she had to say, then I told a white lie that I knew I would be forgiven for: "Aunt Claudia, we all need you too. Your brother Joe [who lived nearby in the city] is very ill and he really wants to talk to you. Will you call him tonight?"
I left her without really knowing for sure what she'd do. The whole family drove up to Uncle Joe's that night and waited anxiously until Claudia finally called. My parents picked her up and drove her to a hospital for observation. She was given a clean bill of health and released a few days later, but her religious fervor never wavered throughout the remainder of her life.
Just as Aunt Claudia gave me early direction by teaching me to play the piano, my father's brother Elmer was also a strong influence in my young life. Uncle Elmer was the first person to help me see the world beyond San Mateo, a world that previously existed only in the movies I'd seen.
In order to fully appreciate my Uncle Elmer, you first have to understand the important role that the game of tennis has always played in the Griffin family.
There were five Griffin brothers Frank, Clarence (known as Peck), Elmer, Milton, and my father, Mervyn. Collectively they were referred to as "those Griffin boys with their lace curtain Irish names." (Until I started this book, I never knew the actual meaning of the name my father and I share: "Merv" means both "from the sea" and "a famous friend.")
All the Griffin men were about 5'9", except Uncle Peck, who at 5'7" was the bantam of the group. And they all had athletes' faces those classically ruddy Irish features. My father and Elmer looked very much alike; each had a strong, athletic body and thinning hair. Uncle Milton had jowls, four double chins, and a potbelly, so he was never much of a sportsman. Neither was Uncle Frank, but nobody could play the piano like he could. Oddly enough, although my father and Uncle Elmer were both champion tennis players, it was the smallest brother, Uncle Peck, who was the national doubles champion, a fact he never let his brothers forget.
Peck's title notwithstanding, it was generally conceded that my father was the best tennis player in the family. For a time he even coached Don Budge, one of the all-time greats of the game. But of all the brothers, my father was the only one who chose to get married and have children. Since tennis was still only an amateur sport in my father's day, his decision to support a family forced him to leave the tennis circuit when he was only twenty-one. Ironically, in today's game even mediocre players are earning seven-figure salaries. I've often wondered how far my father might have gone had he been born fifty years later.
I was always grateful to my dad for one thing. As much as he loved tennis, he never pushed his kids to play it professionally. (Neither my father nor my mother were the kind of parents who tried to live vicariously through their children.) It's true that he did try to teach Barbara and me the rudimentary features of the game. Yet like most athletes, he had a terrible time coaching his own kids. He would take us out on the court, but what he ended up doing was just running us back and forth until we got dizzy and fell down. That was his idea of fun.
Elmer also had a lot of fun with the game. So much so that his exploits earned him three separate mentions in "Ripley's Believe It or Not." Once he won three Oregon state titles all in the same afternoon. Then he won a match while wearing roller skates (his opponent wore sneakers). My favorite Ripley's entry was the time he defeated one of the great players of all time, U.S. men's champion William "Little Bill" Johnston. Uncle Elmer beat Johnston without using a racquet, by catching and returning every serve and volley with only his bare hands. He won the set 6-1.
In 1926, Elmer founded the Beverly Hills Country Club as a place where film executives and stars could meet, socialize, and conduct business. It quickly became a favorite spot for Hollywood stars to see and be seen. Some of the early members included Cesar Romero, Humphrey Bogart, and Errol Flynn.
It was almost beyond comprehension to me that my own uncle knew movie stars like Errol Flynn personally! Flynn was my favorite screen hero, leaping from ship to ship, brandishing his sword gallantly in the cause of justice. Invariably in the last reel he would vanquish the villain, then sweep the leading lady up in his arms and kiss her passionately. Fade to black.
When I was sixteen years old, I made my first solo trip to visit Uncle Elmer in Los Angeles. It happened that Errol Flynn was actually staying with him, as he often did between wives and girlfriends. I was literally trembling with excitement when I walked into my uncle's house. What I didn't expect was that my film idol, fresh from the shower, would be sitting starkers in Elmer's living room. Now, how shall I put this? I think it's fair to say that Errol Flynn brandished a sword both on and off the screen.
At thirty-two, Flynn was twice my age chronologically, but a thousand years older than I was in terms of life experience (his scandalous trial on statutory rape charges wouldn't take place until the following year). Like a sponge with ears, I absorbed everything that I heard during my brief stay. I particularly remember Flynn talking scathingly about his then boss, the powerful (and often punitive) studio chief, Jack Warner. Although Flynn always credited Warner with having the vision to cast him in his first starring role as the swashbuckling hero of Captain Blood, it was no secret that the two men had a tumultuous relationship, due primarily to Flynn's alcohol-fueled escapades off the screen. Flynn's absolute fearlessness in dealing with Warner was fascinating to me. I couldn't possibly imagine that in little more than ten years I would also be under contract to Warner Brothers, and that what I'd learned from Flynn would one day prove quite useful in my own dealings with the tyrannical "J.L."
Since early childhood my fantasy had been to do what Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland did in the movies, which was to clear out a barn and have it became the stage set of a Broadway musical. I never could figure out how they did it; they would get this old barn, and then out would come this million-dollar set. Happened every time. But my secret dream was really to play opposite Judy. In the darkened theater, while she was singing "Dear Mr. Gable" up on the screen, I always imagined that the face in the picture frame was mine, not Clark's.
In truth, I didn't yet have any ambition to be on center stage myself. I just wanted to make things happen. You have to remember that at the time I didn't think of myself as a singer at all. I knew that I had a talent for playing piano, but in the beginning that was as far as it went.
At this point in my life, having only studied classical music, I admit that I was something of a musical snob. I had little awareness of pop music until I was twelve and my family went to visit my sister, who was spending part of the summer at Camp Imelda up on the Russian River, north of San Francisco. They had a camp show every night where the campers sang or put on skits. One of the kids sang a brand-new Rodgers and Hart song called "Where or When." We didn't use the phrase back then, but I was blown away. I'd never heard a song that sounded so beautiful to me. As soon as we got home I taught myself to play it.
Shortly after that I had my first and ill-fated singing experience with the choir at St. Matthew's Church, which I attended every Sunday with my mother, Aunt Claudia, and Aunt Helen. When I first joined the choir, I was often asked to do the solos, because I had a high soprano voice. One day, without warning (and in front of the entire congregation), puberty struck. I was a soprano no more. Instead I was stunned to hear a croaking sound coming from my throat that sounded like someone was strangling that frog-voiced kid from the Little Rascals. From then on I was only a piano player. I certainly never planned on singing in public again.
In the summer of '42 (wasn't that a movie?), I graduated from San Mateo High School. I was seventeen. At 5'9" and 240 pounds, I would fail ten consecutive physical examinations before the military finally decided to give up on me. During the last physical they even detected a slight heart murmur for which I had to be hospitalized. When they released me, the induction officer (whose name, fittingly, was Grimm) said, "That's it, son. You're done. We ain't gonna pay you no veteran's benefits for some heart condition. You ain't goin'."
I may have been 4F, but I was determined to make some kind of contribution to the war effort. So I took a job at the big naval shipyard out on Hunters Point in San Francisco. They put me to work in the supply depot, helping to organize provisions that were being loaded on giant transport ships bound for the Pacific Theater. At the same time (and only to please my parents) I took a few classes at San Mateo Junior College.
Although I was still very confused about my future, I did know one thing for certain I was not cut out for academic life. After twelve years of school, that may have been the only lesson that I'd learned well enough to merit an A+. Unfortunately for me, they didn't give out grades for a lack of interest in school. Don't get the wrong idea. I love to read and I'm willing to match the depth and breadth of my knowledge against anyone with a college degree. Heck, I invented that game it's called Jeopardy! But I'm also someone who's always resented being told what to do, particularly when someone says "it's for your own good."
I honestly believe that's one of my greatest strengths. Making my own choices has allowed me to be more creative than I ever could have been if I was simply following someone else's lesson plan or job description. More than that, it's meant that I've always had to take responsibility for my own decisions. If it works, I can take pride in knowing that the achievement is truly my own. Should I fail and believe me I have then I certainly can't blame anyone else for it. Creativity and responsibility. Shouldn't we be encouraging those things in school? Okay, I'll get off of my soapbox.
July 6, 1943. My eighteenth birthday. It was a Tuesday afternoon and I'd just taken the commuter train home from my new position in the checking department at the Crocker Bank in San Francisco. Just in case you're wondering about my credentials for the job, let me clear that up for you: my father taught tennis to the Crocker family.
Instead of going directly home from the station, for some reason I decided to take a long walk along the railroad tracks. Loosening my tie, I draped my jacket over my arm and headed south toward where was I going? Boy, was that ever the $64 question. (Believe it or not, that was still the top prize on one of the most popular radio quiz shows of the forties, Take It or Leave It. Ten years later it moved to television. The show's producer added three zeroes to that figure and The $64,000 Question was born.)
My thoughts were jumbled that day, but running through my head almost like the soundtrack of a movie were the words to "Where or When," the Rodgers and Hart tune that was the first pop song I'd ever learned to play. The lyrics seemed to carry a special significance that day:
When you're awake, the things you think
Come from the dream you dream
Thought has wings, and lots of things
Are seldom what they seem
Sometimes you think you've lived before
All that you live today
Things you do come back to you
As though they knew the way
Oh the tricks your mind can play
Perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me that afternoon, because I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sensation unlike anything I've ever experienced in my entire life before or since. With a clarity and power that caused me to stop right there on the tracks, a thought actually it was more of an awareness came into my head: "You will never again be a private person."
I began to cry. The pent-up emotions of eighteen years were released in that single transformative moment. When you're awake, the things you think, Come from the dream you dream...
All my life I've been a dreamer. But from then on I knew that my dreams weren't just childish fantasies. Something clicked inside me that day. My dreams both waking and sleeping were no longer mere abstractions; I now understood that I had to act on them. Sometimes that's meant trusting my hunches and taking large risks, despite the odds. Other times I've literally followed the dream itself. And I'm not talking here about grandiose dreams like "someday I'm going to buy the Grand Canyon" (or, as Donald might call it, "Trump Canyon"), but actual precognitive dreams. Dreams that cause me to wake up in the middle of the night and write down every detail I can remember.
Even today, when I'm on the phone and doodling abstractedly, I find myself writing down the words, "Where or When." But I do it in a very odd way. All the letters are connected like this: WHEREORWHEN. I have no idea what that means, but it gets weirder. A year after my epiphany on the railroad tracks, I was given a chance to sing on a nationally syndicated radio program called San Francisco Sketchbook that was broadcast from our local station, KFRC. The very first question that Lyle Bardo, the orchestra leader, asked me was, "Do you know 'Where or When'?"
That was on a Friday. On Monday, the name of the program was The Merv Griffin Show. I was exactly twenty years old.
While I was at KFRC I made it into the record books in a rather interesting way. With my friend Janet Folsom, I formed my own little record label, Panda Records. We chose four songs and I recorded them at a studio in San Francisco. It just so happened that the recording engineer there had recently returned from the war in Europe, where he had been doing experimental recording with something called magnetic tape. In 1946, Songs by Merv Griffin became the first American album ever to be recorded on tape. (If you're looking for a copy, you can find it in the Ampex Museum.)
After three years on the air, the first Merv Griffin Show developed something of a following. I had no way of knowing that one of my regular listeners also happened to be one of the most popular orchestra leaders in the country, Freddy Martin. That all changed one morning in 1948 when a young woman (she couldn't have been any older than I was) named Jean Barry called the station and asked to meet me for lunch. She identified herself as Freddy Martin's secretary.
Over lunch she told me that Freddy's singer, Stuart Wade, was leaving the band after its current stand at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Then she dropped her bombshell: "Freddy wants you for the job, Merv."
At first I didn't believe her. I realized that she was serious only when she invited me to come see the band's show at the St. Francis and meet Freddy in person.
Even before I walked into the elegant Mural Room of the St. Francis Hotel, I had pretty much made up my mind to say yes. At twenty-three, I was eager to expand my horizons beyond San Francisco and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do exactly that.
If I had any doubts about whether I was making the right choice, they were forever dispelled that night. Before I even told him that I had decided to accept his offer, Freddy asked me to come up to the microphone and do a guest song. I went up on stage and, whispering in my ear, he asked me if I could sing you guessed it "Where or When." You betcha, Mr. Martin.
The next day I walked into the KFRC manager's office and said, "Sir, we don't have a contract and I've been here three years. I think that I've done my job well, and you've been very generous, but I quit."
The manager, whose name was Bill Pabst (no relation to the Blue Ribbon), was amazed. He said, "You quit?"
"Yes, sir. I have an offer to go with the Freddy Martin band as their singer for a hundred fifty dollars a week."
Despite the realization that he was about to lose his star, Pabst couldn't help but be amused. "Let me see if I understand this, Merv. You make a hundred dollars per show here and you do eleven shows a week. So you're talking about a weekly salary cut of almost a thousand dollars. You don't understand very much about economics, do you, son?"
What he didn't understand was that money by itself was never that important to me. Don't get me wrong, I was glad to have it. But I never dreamt about it. I still don't.
What I did dream about was being able to perform on the glamorous stages all across America that I'd only read about or seen in the Movietone newsreels. The Starlight Roof in New York. The Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. Even the Mural Room in the St. Francis seemed like a distant and exotic world to me.
My parents were very proud of me. Still, I don't think they believed it all right away; it took a while for my success to sink in. First they had to cope with the fact that I had become a local celebrity who was now making more money in a week than my father made in a month. And they had to accept that their youngest child would be leaving home to travel all over the country as the featured singer of a famous orchestra.
To their credit (and my great fortune) none of that ever changed how they treated me. To them, I was just Buddy.
I took my mother to opening night with Freddy Martin at Ciro's nightclub in Los Angeles. I was terrified. The shaking of my legs was clearly visible through my pants. The celebrity audience thought this was hysterical because while I was singing these romantic ballads, my legs were keeping their own separate beat. Of course, whenever people know you're a newcomer, they're extremely forgiving and very generous with their applause. Afterward, all my mother could say was, "They really like you, don't they?"
The exhilaration of performing in front of an orchestra is something that, even today, I have trouble describing in words. This much I can tell you after doing it for more than fifty years, I still feel it. The moment those violins come in I get a physical sensation of...I suppose the only word for it is joy. That wonderful feeling passes right through my body, the way Judy Garland's voice passed through me whenever I saw her perform.
It was also during this time for better or worse that I began my lifelong association with coconuts.
In those days, the Cocoanut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel was the hottest nightspot in Hollywood. And when we were in town, the Freddy Martin Orchestra was the Cocoanut Grove. I sat in front of the band every night occasionally I'd shake the maracas watching with amazement as every movie actor I'd ever seen on the screen came through those doors. Say a name and they'd appear, as though conjured up by some musical magic Elizabeth Taylor, Bing Crosby, Lana Turner, Doris Day it was a nightly parade of stars.
Of all the celebrities who came into the Cocoanut Grove, perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most unusual, was Howard Hughes. When we played there he was in the audience every night, and I really do mean every night, of what were sometimes three-month-long engagements. He always had a fabulous girl with him, although it was rarely the same girl twice. And although his date was dressed to the nines, Hughes always wore beat-up old sneakers and a tattered sport coat. A creature of habit, he would first order a dish of vanilla ice cream and then he would invariably request the same song, a rhumba that I sang in Greek called "Miserlou." (Down the road it would become clear that these habits were the first inklings of Hughes's obsessive-compulsive personality, but back then he only seemed like a harmless eccentric.)
For someone so famous and powerful, Howard Hughes was almost painfully shy. Maybe it was because I was so young, but for some reason he felt comfortable with me. I can't say that we ever became friends, yet night after night he'd see me out front and he'd stop to request his song. I liked him.
Years later, Noah Dietrich, who was Hughes's assistant for twenty years, wrote an extensive biography of his former boss. When he appeared on my talk show, I hadn't yet read the book.
With great seriousness, as if he was telling me something of extreme importance, Dietrich said, "Merv, do you realize that you were Howard Hughes's favorite singer?"
After Dietrich made this shattering pronouncement, he clearly expected me to be impressed. I wasn't.
Puzzled, he asked, "You're not thrilled?"
"Well, not really," I replied, knowing that would inevitably lead to the next question: "Why not?"
"Noah, the man was deaf. Maybe he liked me because he couldn't hear me."
In 1950, I recorded a novelty tune called "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts." I sang the whole silly song in a cockney accent and, don't ask me why, but it shot to number one on the Hit Parade. All of a sudden I had real fans, not just people who enjoyed my singing. The song was so popular that when we got to Los Angeles, rather than doing our usual stand at the Cocoanut Grove, we were booked into the Palladium, a ballroom with a capacity of 10,000. I will never know what Elvis or the Beatles went through, but those Palladium shows gave me a taste of it. Thousands of screaming girls chanting "We Want 'Coconuts'!" is an image that you never forget. Backstage, I even met the president of my newly created Hollywood High School fan club, a skinny girl with a big voice and a marvelous laugh whose name was...let me see if I can remember it...wait a minute...oh yes, her name was Carol. Carol Burnett. Go figure.
Without even knowing that I was doing it, I had transformed the Freddy Martin Orchestra from a dance band into a show band. The success of "Coconuts" prompted Freddy to commission pieces that were written especially for me, like "Back on the Bus," the story of a band on the road. Unlike "Coconuts" (which, when I hear it now, makes me cringe), "Back on the Bus" was an intentionally funny song with very witty lyrics. The audience waited for it every night.
It was certainly an appropriate song for me, because for most of the four years I was with Freddy Martin, I basically lived on a bus. My seat was always directly behind the driver, which allowed me to carefully observe the ingrown hairs on the back of his neck. (In case you're curious, they were in the shape of a checkerboard square.) There was one stretch where we did seventy-four one-nighters in seventy-four days as we traveled east across the United States. I may not have seen the country before, but I was certainly seeing it now. And I loved it.
Well, most of the time. There was a tradition among traveling musicians that I wasn't made aware of until the band was safely out on the road and I was a long way from home. Bluntly speaking, the boy singer was used as bait. Here's how it worked. I'd be sitting downstage near the audience, with the band behind me, when all of a sudden I'd hear a trumpet player say, "Hey, Merv, get me that one. The one in the white blouse."
We were doing a one-night stand in the coal mining town of Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, a couple of days outside New York. I was onstage singing as dozens of young couples twirled across the dance floor below. Suddenly, there was an urgent whisper in my ear, "Red dress." It was the voice of the saxophone player, one of the lead wolves in our traveling pack.
Dutiful lamb that I was, I spotted Miss Red Dress and started smiling at her, as if she were the only girl in the room. The problem was that she was dancing with her boyfriend at the time. Whenever he'd swing her around so that he was facing the stage, I looked away. As soon as his back turned toward me again, I continued putting the look on his date. This went on for a good ten minutes and she was clearly getting my message. And so was her boyfriend's best buddy, a big hulking fellow who looked like he could dig coal with his bare hands. I watched the whole thing play out right in front of me, like a horror movie in slow motion. Big Lenny comes lumbering right out on the dance floor and starts talking to his friend and pointing up at me. The band is playing and I'm singing, trying to pretend that I'm not seeing any of this. Then the boyfriend starts yelling at his girl, and she's shaking her head back and forth, as if to say, "Don't blame me. I didn't do anything. He was the one looking at me." At this point they had both stopped dancing. Other people were starting to look up at me and point.
I don't think that I've ever sung so fast in my life. After what seemed like an eternity, the music finally stopped. Unfortunately this also meant that I could now hear what was being said to me. Some of it was pretty ugly and quite specific: "Come down here, pretty boy. Let's see how cute you look with that microphone shoved up your..."
Obviously I survived, but the only reason I didn't need medical attention was that the entire band (including the now sheepish saxophone player) surrounded me as we walked out of the ballroom. The coal miners may have been tougher, but they were unarmed. All the musicians held their instruments over their heads like weapons, fully prepared to whack anybody who came near us.
Finally, we arrived in New York where we played the Strand Theater on Broadway (now the Warner Theater) and I realized one of my dreams by singing at the Starlight Roof of the Waldorf-Astoria. Even as I continued to work with Freddy, I also began to have a bit of success on my own. My girlfriend at the time was a beautiful young redhead named Judy Balaban (her father, Barney, was president of Paramount Pictures). Life seemed endlessly interesting and exciting to me then, as it does when you're young. (Actually, life still seems that interesting to me now. You know the old expression, "you're only as old as you feel"? That's not quite true. Sometimes I feel older than dirt. What is true is that you're only as old as you think. Ask anyone and they'll tell you that I'm the oldest kid they know.)
One of my first solo gigs in New York was as a guest singer on what was then the top-rated radio program in the country, The Big Show on NBC. The Big Show was hosted by a woman whose picture can be found in the thesaurus next to the phrase "larger than life" the outrageous, caustic, bawdy ("but never boring, dahling") Miss Tallulah Bankhead.
Before I go on, you need to be familiar with the backstory here. At the same time that I was booked to appear on her radio program, Tallulah Bankhead was also involved in one of the biggest celebrity-scandal trials of the era. Her maid had been charged with stealing from her and, very reluctantly, Tallulah was forced to testify in the case, thus opening the door to testimony about the lurid details of her personal life.
Compared to, say, the O.J. trial, this was a celebrity case with quite a lot of funny moments. In fact, Tallulah was warned repeatedly not to laugh during the testimony of the other witnesses because her throaty guffaw would break up the entire courtroom, including the judge. But she couldn't control herself. "Oh your honor, dahling," she'd say to the judge, "really, I am sorry." She was eventually banished from the courtroom except for when she had to give her own testimony. (By the way, do you know how I knew that O.J. was bad news long before the rest of the world found out? Simple. Sophia Loren once told a story on my show about how Simpson hadn't paid up when he lost to her in poker. In other words, "the rules don't apply to me.")
Okay, back to The Big Show. At the afternoon rehearsal, everybody gathered around a large table to go over that evening's script. Let me tell you who else was there that day: Ethel Merman, Phil Silvers, and Loretta Young. And fresh from her matinee performance in New York Superior Court, our host, Miss Bankhead.
Now, everyone in that room knew that in court Tallulah had been accused of being a flagrant pot smoker. Anyone else would have been on her best behavior, knowing that the slightest impropriety would surely make its way into print. But not Tallulah. Draped in a full-length mink coat, she sauntered leisurely into the room (late, as usual, which guaranteed her an audience) and stopped in front of the NBC orchestra. She looked at Meredith Willson and the hundred musicians seated behind him, paused for effect, then in that gruff Southern voice that earned her the nickname "the Alabama Foghorn," she asked, "Has anybody got a reefer?"
After the waves of laughter finally subsided, Ethel Merman resumed telling a story to Phil Silvers that had been interrupted by Tallulah's grand entrance.
"So, Phil, I was just saying that I bumped into that singing teacher we used to have." She mentioned his name and Phil Silvers said, "Oh him. I thought he was dead. He's a son of a bitch."
Loretta Young, who was very religious and quite proper, said, "That will be one dollar for the swear box." Phil Silvers dug into his pocket, pulled out a dollar, and put it in a cardboard shoebox that was sitting in the middle of the table.
"Well, honey," continued Ethel, "you remember that little rat who was our first manager? I thought he was dead too, but I saw that lousy bastard in Sardi's just last week."
Like a missionary among heathens, Loretta was undaunted. "Ethel," she said, primly, "that will be another dollar for the swear box."
And so it went, back and forth like a tennis match for about ten minutes, until the shoebox was stuffed with cash. Tallulah had been uncharacteristically quiet throughout these exchanges until, finally, she could stand it no longer.
"Loretta, dahling," she drawled, "how much will it cost me to tell you to go fuck yourself?"
Loretta slumped down in her chair as if she'd been struck. And that was the end of the rehearsal.
Along with my solo gigs in New York, I still had a steady job with Freddy Martin. In fact, we even landed our own weekly television show on NBC. In early television, every show had a single sponsor. Ours was Hazel Bishop lipstick, which was a very famous brand in the fifties "Won't smear off. Won't rub off. Won't kiss off."
"The Hazel Bishop Show featuring the Freddy Martin Orchestra" originated live every Wednesday night at ten o'clock from the Center Theater in New York. (Now remember this detail; you'll be tested on it later. The Center Theater had a giant movie screen above the stage so that the studio audience could see everything in close-up, just like the audience at home.)
There actually was a Hazel Bishop. She was the laboratory technician who had discovered a revolutionary no-smear formula for lipstick. Unfortunately for her, there were also a few problems with her product that hadn't quite been worked out yet. One particularly annoying side effect was that after putting on the lipstick, a girl's lips swelled up as if she had been kissed by a bee. The band got free samples without realizing any of this and we gave them out to all our wives, girlfriends, mothers, and sisters. It wasn't pretty. Of course we couldn't say anything negative about the lipstick without offending our sponsor.
Every week those of us who were soloists were required to do a commercial with the spokeswoman for Hazel Bishop (not Hazel herself). Inevitably, my turn came to do the commercial.
The bit was that I would be singing and the spokeswoman would lean over in the middle of my song and kiss me. I'd act surprised and pull out my handkerchief to wipe off the lipstick. Then I'd look at the handkerchief before I turned it to the audience. "Amazing," I'd say holding it up, "no lipstick smears!"
Because very bright lights were required for those early television broadcasts, we needed to wear a lot of makeup. I rehearsed the commercial without it. That night, of course, I had full makeup on for the cameras.
So the big moment came and the girl kissed me. (Don't forget, this whole thing was live.) On cue, I wiped it off, but when I looked down at my handkerchief, there was a huge, gooey makeup stain on it. I knew immediately that on black and white television screens that smudge would read like lipstick. But I had to do something. I flipped the handkerchief over quickly so that only the white part was showing and, with a terrified deer-in-the-headlights look, said, "See, no lipstick smears!" Then I shoved it back in my pocket as fast as I could. I don't know how it played at home, but the live audience saw the whole thing on the big screen. They screamed with laughter for two solid minutes.
When I went backstage, the real Hazel Bishop was there waiting for me. She was red-faced and shaking with anger. Hazel didn't give a damn about her company. All she said was, "You embarrassed me in front of my friends!" My "first blush" of success became a very famous clip, one of the original bloopers from early television.
A side note: the crew of The Hazel Bishop Show would go on to enjoy extraordinary success in the years to come. The director was Perry Lafferty, who would later become the West Coast head of CBS. The front stage manager was Arthur Penn, who went on to direct The Miracle Worker and Bonnie and Clyde, among many great films. And the backstage manager was Bill Colleran, who ended up as the director of Your Hit Parade and, later, The Dean Martin Show. Bill married Lee Remick, and I became godfather to their daughter, Kate. It was an all-star crew and we became very close friends, never imagining what the future held in store for each of us.
In July of 1952, my own future arrived in the form of a draft notice: "Greetings. Please report to 39 Whitehall Street for your pre-induction physical." Although I had flunked those ten physicals during World War II, the new slimmed-down Merv (I'd lost eighty pounds since then) was certain to pass muster.
Like a man condemned, I got all my affairs in order. First, I informed Freddy that Uncle Sam had invited me off the bus. Then I sent all my belongings back to my parents. My friends in New York gave me a big farewell party. Finally, the day came and I took the subway downtown to the main induction center on Whitehall Street (made famous by Arlo Guthrie in the song "Alice's Restaurant"). Sure enough, I was now a perfect physical specimen. As I gathered my clothes and walked back to the desk for final processing, I remember thinking, I wonder how long it will take me to learn Korean?
I was still lost in thought when the desk sergeant looked up at me and barked, "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Reporting for duty, sir!"
"Reporting for duty my ass, you're too old. They changed the law six months ago. Twenty-six is the new cutoff." I had just turned twenty-seven.
Stunned, I managed to say, "What do I do now, sir?"
"Go home. Next."
What was next? I didn't go back to Freddy Martin, but as a personal favor, I did agree to appear with him in Las Vegas for a two-week booking at the Last Frontier Hotel and Casino when his newly hired singer (my replacement) had a last-minute family crisis.
It was during this engagement that my life once more changed drastically. Again it would happen with dizzying speed, much in the way it had when I was given my own radio show after only three days or when Jean Barry asked me to lunch and, a week later, I was singing with Freddy Martin.
This time the angel of my good fortune was one of the biggest movie stars of the fifties the former Doris Von Kappelhoff, better known to the world as Doris Day.
I was in my dressing room between shows (we were doing two shows a night), when I heard a light knock on the door.
No one answered so I went over and opened the door myself. Standing there was a little boy who must have been about ten years old.
"What can I do for you, young man?" I smiled down at him, already feeling for a pen in my pocket to give him an autograph. (People never have their own pens.)
"My name is Terry and my dad wants to sign you for the movies and my mom wants to make a movie with you." I'd heard a lot of good stories, but this was a new one on me.
Playing along, I said, "Hey, that's great, kid. So who's your mom?"
I stared at him blankly for a moment. He might as well have said Queen Elizabeth. When I found my voice, all I could think to say was, "I love your mother."
He ran out and brought both of his parents back to meet me. Needless to say, his mother really was Doris Day, and his stepfather was her husband and manager, Marty Melcher. Doris was under contract at Warner Brothers and she told me that I'd be perfect for the kind of musicals that she was making there. Doris and Marty promised to arrange a screen test for me right away.
Elated, I flew to Los Angeles immediately following my final show with Freddy. After taking my screen test a few days later, I signed my name on a long-term contract with Warner Brothers for the staggering sum of $250 a week. ("You don't understand very much about economics, do you, son?")
The ink wasn't even dry when the studio started trying to "fix" me. They began with the name I'd just affixed to my contract.
"We don't think your name works. How about Mark Griffin?"
I said, "Well, I've had my own radio show and a number one record with that name, so I think it works fine."
"Okay, then how about changing the spelling? We can add a second 'e.' You'll be Merve Griffin."
I resisted the temptation to say, "Hey, you guys have got some merve." Instead, I politely thanked them and said that I couldn't change the spelling because it would greatly upset my father, whose namesake I was. (It didn't much matter what I wanted. I spent the next ten years telling reporters "I don't care what it says. There's no second 'e,' damnit!" Dan Quayle would later have the same problem with "potatoe.")
My salary of $250 climbed to a whopping $300 a week after I starred in So This Is Love, with Kathryn Grayson. The public didn't realize it, but as a contract player you could be the star of a major motion picture and when it was over you were still poor.
Today they pay actors these astronomical sums, sometimes as much as $20 million a picture. Even so, I believe it's smarter to do what Jack Nicholson did on films like Batman and As Good as It Gets: take a low salary in return for a percentage of the profits on the back end. If the film is a hit, you'll make far more than you would have as a salaried actor, no matter how much you're paid up front.
My bookkeeper, Gloria Redlich, who's been with me over forty years, always tells people about a remark I made to her when we first met: "You'll never get rich on a W-2." I still think that's true.
It turned out that So This Is Love was the only serious film role that I would ever have. The press screening was held at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper were both there, confirming the importance of the event.
It was in that theater that I saw myself, for the first time, on the big screen. I had never watched the rushes (the partial film clips shown at the end of each day's shooting), so I had no idea what I looked like on film. As the picture unspooled, I found myself sliding further and further down in my chair. By the time it ended, I was under the seat, on the floor. Before the credits even finished rolling, I snuck out into the lobby, hoping to make a quick exit. But Hedda and Louella were there, blocking my path. "Oh, you darling boy," they cooed at me in unison, "you're going to be the biggest star in the world." They kissed me and hugged me and I thought, What's going on here? Could they be telling the truth? Nah.
That night, I just lay there in bed, unable to fall asleep. Finally, I decided that Hedda and Louella were right. I was the biggest star in the world. I drifted off and dreamt that I was thanking the Academy for the great honor it had bestowed upon me.
Unfortunately for my Oscar, I woke up.
To be fair, it wasn't only my performance that sank So This Is Love. The day before our picture opened, Twentieth Century-Fox released The Robe, the first motion picture ever shot in CinemaScope ("The modern miracle you see without glasses!"). For months afterward, all anyone could talk about was "widescreen."
From then on, I was given small parts and voice-over work in a dozen other movies, none of which meant a thing. Of course you remember that dramatic radio bulletin in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms: "Well, folks, here's another one of those silly reports about sea serpents again." That was me.
Finally I called my manager and said, "How do I get out of here?" It got so bad that one day the casting director called my house and I answered the phone as if I barely spoke English.
"Can I speak to Mr. Griffin, please?"
"He no home! He no home! You call back!"
Shortly after that, I bought out the remainder of my contract. I wasn't sure what I was going to do next, but I knew that I wouldn't be giving that Academy Award speech anytime soon.
Short-lived as my film career proved to be, it did earn me a small footnote in cinema history. Judged by today's standards, my achievement seems almost comical. Believe it or not, when I kissed Kathryn Grayson in So This Is Love, it was the first time an open-mouthed kiss had ever been shown in theaters. At the time, it was a big deal. Really.
In December of 1953, I found myself back in Las Vegas, the town where, only two years before, Doris Day "discovered" me. (Show business may be the only profession where you can work for years to become an overnight sensation.)
Right after my release from the Warners contract, my agent got a call from the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. To celebrate their first anniversary they'd brought in none other than the great Tallulah Bankhead herself and asked her to create a variety act especially for the occasion. I was hired as her opening act.
On the second day of our two-week engagement, I developed laryngitis and had to take the night off. I was back the next day, but to my surprise, Tallulah wasn't speaking to me. I thought she was going to fire me. I finally cornered her and asked her what was wrong.
"You little prick." She was smiling, so I knew my job was safe.
"You know I hate it when people get sick around me. I start to take on their symptoms, dahling. If I'm around someone who stutters, I stutter. When somebody tells me that they've been in a car accident, I feel injured myself. Just don't cough on me, dahling."
I made a mental note: find another job where you won't get fired if you lose your voice.
On our last night at the Sands, Tallulah and I had more than a few too many. Feeling no pain, and in violation of house rules that strictly forbade performers from gambling, we hit the tables. By dawn, I had almost $30,000 in my pocket, including my paycheck. (There was a grim moment later than afternoon when, having spent the night in my car, I woke up and couldn't remember where my money was. I finally found it pushed down in my shoes.)
I decided to parlay my Vegas winnings into a new start in New York. So when I got back to L.A., I called the girl that I was seeing at the time, a singer-dancer named Rita Farrell.
"I'm out of here, Rita. I'm going to New York to start my career."
She didn't try to talk me out of it. "I'm going with you," was all she said.
I got a deal on a new Ford convertible and the two of us hit the road. Once again I was headed to New York in search of fame and fortune. But this time it would be different (or so I thought). There was no Freddy Martin to answer to, no studio executives to argue with. I was now the captain of my own ship.
Maybe so, but anybody who saw me during that cross-country trip must have thought my ship was a garbage scow. Rita and I were both wearing old clothes and looking slovenly. We barely even stopped for food along the way, so by the time we got to Pennsylvania, I hadn't shaved in almost a week.
My new Ford convertible blew up at the Harrisburg exit on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The engine block cracked and steam came pouring out; we had to have it towed into the local dealership.
Looking (and probably smelling) like two escaped prisoners, Rita and I were stuck at that Ford dealership in Harrisburg waiting for word about our car.
Finally, the manager broke the bad news: "You need a new motor."
I was dumbfounded. "It's a brand-new car. I just bought it. You've got to fix it."
"I'm sorry," although he clearly wasn't, "but you're over the mileage limit on your warranty."
"You've got to be kidding." We were talking big money for that kind of job.
"There's nothing we can do about it. Those are the rules. I'm sorry."
Now, there's something you should know. The year before, when I was still at Warner Brothers, I'd performed at a private show for all the top brass of the Ford Motor Company at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles. Many of the big Warner stars were on the bill and, afterward, all of us were introduced to the three Ford brothers, Henry, William, and Benson.
So I said to the manager, "Could I use your phone to call Mr. Ford?" He looked at Rita and me as if we were lunatics.
I ignored his attitude and calmly repeated, "Please let me use your phone. I want to call Benson Ford."
Clearly annoyed, the manager said, "Would you really?" But he decided to call what was certainly my bluff.
So he turned to his secretary and said, "Get Mr. Benson Ford on the phone and tell him what's your name? tell him Merv Griffin wants to speak with him."
Luckily, he had a primitive kind of speakerphone in his office, so after she placed the call, I did all the talking.
"Mr. Ford's office. May I help you?"
"Mr. Ford please, it's Merv Griffin calling."
"Oh yes, Mr. Griffin," said Ford's secretary. "Hold on, please, I'll get him." At that point the color began to drain from the manager's face.
"Merv! How are you?" The booming voice of Benson Ford blasted over the speakerphone.
I replied, "Terrible, Mr. Ford, just terrible."
Now the manager is suddenly looking at me with a mixture of awe and fear, like I'd just called God (which to him, I had). I explained our predicament to Benson Ford. When I'd finished my tale of woe, he simply said, "Put that manager on the phone."
The manager, who was listening to all this over the speaker, said, somewhat hesitantly, "I'm right here, Mr. Ford."
"Now you listen to me. Give that boy a new motor. Give him anything he wants. Just charge it to me. Got that?"
"Yes sir, Mr. Ford. Right away, sir." Oh boy.
They gave us a new motor and we were back on the road two days later. If I'd asked him to, the manager would have driven us to New York himself.
I had a leg up when I arrived in New York because I was already represented by MCA, then the largest talent agency in the country. Marty Kummer, who also handled Ed Sullivan and Jack Paar, was my agent there, and he was devoted to me. He had that rare quality in an agent he treated you with the same enthusiasm and attention whether you were making ten dollars or ten thousand dollars.
For a while Marty got me a lot of singing jobs, usually one-offs (a single night's work). Since I was a quick study, I developed a reputation as being a reliable utility singer ("We're on in twenty minutes? Get that Griffin kid.").
Finally, after about six months of this, I called Marty Kummer and said, "I don't want to sing anymore."
"What do you mean, Merv? You're a singer. That's what you do."
"But I don't want to do it anymore, Marty."
There was silence on the line. For a second I thought he'd hung up. Then, quietly, almost like he was talking to a child, he asked, "What is it you want to do, Merv?"
"I want to MC."
"Merv," he said patiently, "you know that singers aren't accepted as MCs. They can't talk. Have you seen The Eddie Fisher Show?"
I had seen it. It was a train wreck. "That's different, Marty. He can't talk. I can."
By this time, Marty was resigned to losing the argument, so he shifted gears. "Okay, fine. Right now, there aren't any MC jobs out there. I'll put your name in if something opens up, but it could take quite a while. And there's no guarantee you'll even be seriously considered. So what are you going to do in the meantime? You've got to eat."
"I don't want to depend upon my singing voice anymore, Marty. I don't think that's the career for me. I'll wait."
I hung up the phone and thought, What the hell have I just done?
There's an old Irish saying that God watches over drunks, fools, and little children. I'm not exactly sure where I fit in, but apparently He was watching over me anyway. Within a few months of that telephone call to my agent, a hosting job opened up on Look Up and Live, a Sunday morning religious show on CBS. I jumped at it, if only for the opportunity to prove that I could cut it as an MC.
Look Up and Live was a show that ran its entire script through the TelePrompTer, so I had to learn to read my lines while making it look like I was ad-libbing. One day I was midway though an earnest conversation with a Protestant minister when the whole show, quite literally, unraveled. The early TelePrompTers were little more than long rolls of paper. Suddenly the entire thing scrunched up and the paper tore, then completely ripped apart.
I looked at the minister and, without pausing, I said, "Isn't that right, Reverend?"
He glanced at me nervously. "What?"
"What I just said. Isn't that right?"
"Oh yes," he said, still not sure of what he was agreeing to, "that's exactly right." (He wasn't listening either.)
I'd just dumped it all on him. At least he could fall back on Scripture, even without the TelePrompTer.
Very early in my career, I had discovered something important about myself. When that red light came on, I didn't have a single nerve in my body. It was like stepping out of reality and becoming someone else.
While I was doing Look Up and Live, I became quite friendly with Mahalia Jackson and Sidney Poitier, both of whom were regular performers on the program. Mahalia sang gospel songs and Sidney acted out various Bible stories.
Sidney was about my age and, like me, he was frustrated at the direction his career was or wasn't taking. But unlike me, he loved acting. He'd even started his own drama school up in Harlem. One morning we were having breakfast and he asked me what I'd do if I couldn't get work as a host after this show. I thought about it, and then realizing how much I'd come to admire my agent, Marty Kummer, I said, "I think I might try my luck at being an agent." Sidney said that if things didn't pan out for him soon, he'd quit acting and run his drama school. After we left the show we lost touch with each other, and I didn't see him again for more than twenty years. One day we ran into each other in Sardi's, where we were both having dinner. By this time, I had a national television show running five nights a week and he had my Oscar.
We greeted each other warmly. "Sidney," I asked earnestly, "do you still have your acting school?" Without missing a beat, he said, "No, Merv, that didn't work out for me. Are you still an agent?"
After I finished my run with Look Up and Live, CBS gave me an even bigger opportunity. It was a slot on their version of the Today show The CBS Morning Show. Even though they wanted me as a singer, I took the job because it was the same show where Jack Paar got his start.
After Paar, CBS had given the host's job to John Henry Faulk, the great American humorist (who was subsequently blacklisted on charges that were eventually proven false). Faulk was the host when I was hired.
American Airlines was our sponsor and they served us breakfast on the air between seven and eight in the morning. Every day they gave us these huge portions of pancakes and bacon. I suppose they wanted people to think that these were airline-size portions. Right.
Because we had to repeat the show for the West Coast at nine (no tape in those days), we had to eat the same damn breakfast all over again...and look like we were enjoying it. Well, I was already annoyed at having to go to work at 4:00 A.M. (an hour I far prefer at the end of my day rather than the beginning), but having to eat those stupid meals twice a day on camera was beginning to put me over the edge.
I can handle almost anything in life except boredom. And this job was boring me to tears.
Now several times during the show, the announcer stood up and gave a weather report on camera, much in the same way Al Roker does it now on the Today show. However, in those primitive days of television, there were no maps and charts and satellite photographs. He just stood there with a long sheet of paper and read the temperatures and forecasts from around the country.
So, one day and I still don't know what made me do this I leaned over and lit the bottom of his weather report on fire. He screamed, "I'm on fire!" although it was only his copy that was burning slightly around the edges. The poor guy panicked. He wore a toupee and, fearing that it would soon ignite, he yanked it off his head and threw it across the room. By this time the fire was out, but the damage was done. He turned to me and said, on camera, "That was evil." Stifling the urge to laugh, I said, "Oh, I guess it was. I'm very sorry."
I'm not sure how you would describe my behavior in those days. I don't think I was brash...well, perhaps setting the weatherman's copy on fire was brash. But it was entertaining.
Shortly after that, Faulk was let go. We learned that his replacement would be a young disc jockey from New Orleans who'd only done local television; his name was Dick Van Dyke. This would be his big national break. CBS flew him to New York, he had a great rehearsal, and everything was set for his debut the following day.
The next morning we were all at the studio at four, everybody except Dick. Five o'clock comes, then six, and still no sign of our new host. Finally it was five minutes to seven, and the producer comes rushing out and says to me, "We've looked everywhere. We can't find him and we're going on live at seven. You're going on in his place." Maybe it was because I was too young to know any better, or maybe it was because this scene was already very familiar to me from all those Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movies where somehow the show always managed to go on, but I wasn't nervous at all. I just said, "Okay, I'm ready. Let's go."
At two minutes to seven the producer handed me a bunch of public service announcements ("Don't forget this is National Bunion Awareness Week") and said, "Read these." I looked at them and said, "These are diseases. It's seven in the morning. Trust me, nobody wants to think about getting sick when they're not awake yet. I'll just wing it." I handed him back the papers and before he could argue with me, the red light came on and we were off to the races. For the next three hours, I MC'd the show without a script and when it was over, I thought to myself, This is fun. I can do this.
Oh, maybe you're wondering whatever happened to Dick Van Dyke. It turned out that he was so nervous he slept through his wake-up call and all the frantic calls from the production staff that followed. He never did show up that day. By the next day he was fine, and he had a great run as host of the show. Obviously, CBS never lost confidence in him. A good thing too ten years later he was their biggest star. Dick and I have laughed over this story many times. He takes credit for launching my career as a talk show host and I point out that he's just lucky I didn't set him on fire.
Copyright © 2003 by Merv Griffin
Meet the Author
David Bender was a founding contributing editor of George
magazine. His previous books include Stand and Be Counted (with
David Crosby) and The Confession of O.J. Simpson: A Work of
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