Merv Griffin, who parlayed a talent for talk and entertainment into a one-man business conglomerate, died of cancer early this morning. He was 82.
A talk show host for nearly 25 years, Griffin was also the creator of the long-running game shows "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy."
With his entertainment earnings, he built a real estate and horse-racing business last valued by some estimates at $1.6 billion.
Originally a singer, Griffin got his start, when he was just 19 years old, as host of his own music show on KFRC Radio in San Francisco. He went on to perform with the Freddy Martin Orchestra, and had a number-one song in 1950, selling three million copies of "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts."
Fame won Griffin an acting contract with Warner Brothers, for which he made a handful of movies, including the lead opposite Katherine Grayson in "So This is Love."
But, movies were not his future, and in the 1960s, television producers were convinced that Griffin's affable personality would make him a comfortable talk show host. Long before Oprah, Griffin dominated talk.
Starting in 1964, "The Merv Griffin Show" was on daytime television — for a time, at night against Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" — for nearly 25 years. He is credited with taping 5,500 shows and interviewing 25,000 guests.
He once said, "I must be doing something right, because everything lasts."
Griffin didn't so much interview his guests as hang out with him. He joked around with such stars as Don Rickles and Jack Benny. And he sat down with political figures — Bobby Kennedy, The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Richard Nixon.
He had an eye for talent, showcasing young guests like Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Billy Crystal, who went on to become major stars.
Griffin was a friend of power hitters, both in Hollywood and on the national scene, most notable among them President Ronald Reagan.
In addition to creating his two games shows, which are among the longest-running shows on television, he even wrote the "thinking" music that accompnies the last moments of "Final Jeopardy" as contestants contemplate their answer.
Griffin sold his television company, Merv Griffin Enterprises, to Coca Cola Co. for a quarter-billion dollars in 1986. He used that money to build a real estate and horse breeding conglomerate, Griffin Group/Merv Griffin Enterprises.
He once wrested control of Resorts International from another famous mogul, Donald Trump, and owned a number of hotels and casinos.
Griffin was married in 1958 and divorced in 1976. In 1991, he was unsuccessfully sued for palimony by a male horse trainer, and for sexual harassment by Deney Terrio, the former host of a Griffin production, "Dance Fever."
Griffin is survived by his son, Anthony and two grandchildren.