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Richard Dawson: Original ‘Family Feud’ host dies at 79
His swaggering, randy manner set him apart from other TV quizmasters, who, more often than not, tempered any boisterous inclinations with defiant smoothness. Not Dawson, who was overtly physical, prone to invading his contestants’ personal space — and especially the women, each of whom he kissed without exception.
At the time the show bowed out in 1985, executive producer Howard Felsher estimated that Dawson had kissed “somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000.”
“I kissed them for luck and love, that’s all,” Dawson said at the time.
One of them he kissed was Gretchen Johnson, an attractive young contestant who came on with members of her family in 1981. She and Dawson began dating, and, after a decade together, they wed in 1991. (Dawson is survived by Gretchen and their daughter Shannon, as well as two sons, Mark and Gary, from his first marriage, and four grandchildren.)
Producers revived the show as “The New Family Feud,” starring comedian Ray Combs, in 1988. Six years later, Dawson replaced Combs at the helm, but that lasted only one season. Louie Anderson, Richard Karn, John O’Hurley and, currently, Steve Harvey have also hosted the show.
Dawson reprised his game show character in a much darker mood in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger film “The Running Man,” playing the host of a deadly TV show set in a totalitarian future, where convicts try to escape as their executioners stalk them.
But long before “Feud,” Dawson had gained fame as the fast-talking Cpl. Peter Newkirk on “Hogan's Heroes,” the CBS comedy starring Bob Crane set in World War II. The show made the ratings top 10 in its first season, 1965-66, and aired until 1971.
“We ran six years,” Dawson once quipped, “a year longer than Hitler.”
Dawson was born Colin Lionel Emm in 1932 in Gosport, England. When he was 14 he joined the Merchant Marines, serving three years.
He first got into show business as a standup comedian, playing clubs in London’s West End including the legendary Stork Room. It was there, in the late 1950s, he met blond bombshell Diana Dors, the film star who became known as Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe. They married in 1959 and divorced a decade later.
Dawson landed roles in U.S. comedy and variety shows in the early 1960s, including “The Steve Allen Show” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Then his performance as a military prisoner in the 1965 film “King Rat” led to his being cast in “Hogan's Heroes,” which truly made him a star to American audiences.
After that, he was a regular on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and “The New Dick Van Dyke Show.”
Meanwhile, he became a frequent celebrity contestant on game shows, most notably both daytime and prime-time versions of “Match Game.”
While still a panelist on “Match Game,” he began on “Family Feud,” where his popularity grew to such levels that he was mentioned as a front-runner to win the “Tonight Show” host chair as successor to Johnny Carson, who at the time was considering retirement. Though Carson stayed put, Dawson logged appearances as a guest host.
In 1985, on Dawson ended that lengthy “Family Feud” run, the studio audience honored him with a standing ovation, and he responded: “Please sit down. I have to do at least 30 minutes of fun and laughter, and you make me want to cry.”
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