Walter Mencken 6:15 p.m., Feb. 28
He gained fame as the wise-cracking panelist on Match Game and oh-so kissable host of Family Feud. The Munster Go Home co-star, Laugh-In regular, and one of Hogan's Heroes on TV's premier Stalag sitcom is dead.
The survey said Richard Dawson's time was up. The beloved Goodson & Todman quiz master passed away Saturday evening from complications due to esophageal cancer. He was 79.
Richard Dawson was born Colin Lionel Emm on November 20, 1932 in Gosport, Hampshire, England. He ran away from home at the age of 14 to join the Merchant Marine. During his three year stint, Dawson picked up pocket money as a boxer.
Dawson won the heart of British bombshell Diana Dors. The two married in 1959 while in New York for an appearance on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show.
The couple moved to Los Angeles and after an uncredited bit role as a British soldier in The Longest Day, Dawson made an impression on audiences with strong appearances on The Jack Benny Program and The Dick Van Dyke Show. Dawson & Dors separated in 1964 and eventually divorced in 1967.
As if preordained, I look up to find King Rat, Dawson's first billed-role in a feature film, playing on Antenna TV. It's a small but pivotal part towards the end of the picture. Dawson is quite convincing as Captain Weaver, the 1st Recon paratrooper sent to liberate a group of POWs (led by George Segal) held prisoner in a Japanese camp.
Perhaps it was this role that caught the eye of a Bing Crosby Productions casting director. Add some gags and a hipster attitude and you'll find a blueprint for Hogan's Heroes' wacky POW, Cpl. Peter Newkirk.
I started Hebrew School around the time Hogan's Heroes hit the airwaves and remember Rabbi Lichstein calling for a ban on the show. (He muttered something about Nazis and canned-laughter not mixing.) Having just seen Stalag 17 on The Best of CBS, my 10-year-old brain smelled a rat: this was Billy Wilder in skunk's clothing. I had ample reason to avoid the show and did so at every opportunity.
Those who have seen Auto Focus, Paul Schrader's biopic about the life and death of Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane, will remember it was Dawson who introduced Crane to John Henry Carpenter. Carpenter had early access to video equipment and was said to have acted as videographer on several of Crane's home made pornos. He remained a prime suspect in Crane's unsolved murder until the time of his death.
Having passed on HH, my thesis work in Richard Dawson began in 1971 when he joined the cast of the NBC variety show, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Soon after he appeared as a panelist on the Goodson and Todman syndicated revival of I've Got a Secret, and the rest is game show history.
In 1973, game show guru Mark Goodson signed Dawson, Brett Summers, Charles Nelson Reilly, and host Gene Rayburn as regulars on Match Game '73. Not since The Three Stooges left the air in the early '60's was I given this strong a reason to greet the 3:15 pm school bell running to make it home in time to see a television show.
Reilly was a good player while Summers -- always going for the harebrained laugh -- couldn't match a contestant at gunpoint. Dawson was clearly the brains of the celeb panel, particularly when the seat to his right was filled by a rotating bimbo of the month the network wanted to showcase.
Parked in his regular position of center seat on the lower tier, Dawson was the go-to pick whenever a contestant, fortunate enough to advance to the "Audience Match" and later "Super-Match" bonus rounds, needed a celebrity to be in tune in with.
Dawson had a smarmy streak. His obsequious homages to obvious superiors Paul Lynde, W.C. Fields and, with felt-tipped marker doubling as cigar, Groucho Marx, functioned as air brakes. Even on the GSN reruns (the show still airs 5 days a week) Dawson's stab at being the British Rich Little doesn't withstand the test of time.
Neither does his wardrobe. With prom tux ruffles, lapels that could seat six, sport coats that double as horse blankets, and knots in his tie that could choke a horse, Dawson's circus-in-a-phone-booth ensembles were the epitome of everything wrong with '70's fashion.
Halfway through his stint as Match Game regular, Goodson hired Dawson to host Family Feud. The show was an instant hit when it debuted on July 12, 1976, so popular that it quickly spawned a nighttime syndicated spinoff. With in no time it leapfrogged ahead of The Match Game in the ratings.
Dawson was dubbed "the kissing bandit" due to his propensity for planting good luck smacks on the lips of female contestants. On the surface it was a bit pervy, but Dawson swore the habit was picked up from his mother known for dispensing good fortune smooches to her young son.
Family Feud was canceled in 1985. Dawson resumed hosting duties in 1994, when he was brought to spell new host Ray Combs and the falling ratings blamed on the death of Mark Goodson. According to IMDB, "Son, Jonathan Goodson and consultant Harris Kattleman decided to bring back original host Richard Dawson to try and boost ratings, but a drab set covering, low prize money and bad timeslots forced Family Feud back onto the shelf in 1995."
He parodied his persona in the Arnold Schwarzenegger action picture, The Running Man (1987). After leaving the Feud in 1995, that was pretty much the last the world saw of Richard Dawson.
He retired to Beverly Hills in 1991 with his wife Gretchen Jacobson. The two met when she was a contestant on Family Feud in 1981. He had two sons, Mark and Gary, from his marriage to Dors.
Dawson was surrounded by loved ones at the time of his death. With him went a school of game show excellence that's lost in today's quest for instant millionaires and reality TV masquerading as game shows. Show me some applause for Richard Dawson.
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