Sunday, June 3, 2012

Richard Dawson: 1932-2012

I guess the news broke about 7 hours ago, as the first news piece featured in Google search about the death of Richard Dawson dates 7 hours ago. Currently it's 12:30pm on a Sunday afternoon.

I first heard of Richard Dawson through mentions of him by my grandparent's. I was not a heavy game show watcher at that point in time...the only game shows I knew of were The Price Is Right, Card Sharks, Press Your Luck, and The $25,000 Pyramid to name a couple. As I got older I became familiar with other game shows, too. I was probably Kindergarten age when I first saw The Price is Right, for example. Obviously my parent's and grandparent's watched CBS the most and so those were the game shows I first recall seeing. grandmother often remarked about Richard Dawson and saying her favorite game show was Family Feud. At that point in time I never saw the show and didn't even know who Richard Dawson was. In the late '80s Nick-at-Nite was airing Laugh-In and in the episodes that were airing Richard Dawson was a cast-member. Fast-forward a few years later and I come across a repeat of Hogan's Heroes playing on a local station. In the opening credits there was Richard Dawson. I watched the episode and found out he played a character named Newkirk.

By this time Family Feud had been on the air but hosted by Ray Combs...and so I was able to finally see this show that my grandparent's often talked about. I instantly loved the show. Gene Wood was the announcer. When our cable provider added the Game Show Network to our line-up I was at long last able to see complete episodes of the Richard Dawson-era of Family Feud as well as Match Game that my grandmother often spoke about, too! My grandfather often mentioned to me that the host of Match Game, Gene Rayburn, is someone he remembered from Steve Allen's comedy shows. Rayburn was Steve Allen's announcer/side-kick in the various talk-shows that Allen hosted in the '50s and '60s. Johnny Olsen was the announcer on Match Game (and just about every other game show by the Goodson-Todman company).

Richard Dawson was a regular panelist on Match Game for five straight seasons, 1973-1978. He also hosted a version of the game, Masquerade Party, in 1974, and it lasted 1 season. A clip of Dawson as Groucho Marx, from an episode of Masquerade Party, surfaced on You Tube. The 3-member panel was comprised of Bill Bixby, Lee Meriweather, and Nipsey Russell. The guest during the segment was a heavily made-up Charles Nelson Reilly. The home and studio audience is let in on who the guest really is and the allure of the game was basically seeing celebrities being at a loss as they try and figure out who the disguised guest happens to be. There were 39 episodes made of the weekly syndicated program. The series was produced by Monty Hall and Stefan Hatos. If it had been syndicated daily, I think, chances are it may have caught on with viewers but as it turned out all the regulars of the series would continue their successes elsewhere. Bixby, several years later, would become internationally famous as David Banner in The Incredible Hulk series on CBS. He had already become well-established thanks to The Courtship of Eddie's Father in the '70s and in the '60s, My Favorite Martian, but The Incredible Hulk series put Bixby's image and name into iconic status. Nipsey Russell, on the other hand, had long been a hugely popular fixture on variety shows...often being referred to as The Poet Laureate of Television. He'd continue to appear on game shows into the early 1990's. He had a recurring role in the '60s on Car 54, Where Are You? and was a side-kick of Les Crane in the mid '60s on The Les Crane Show. Russell also made numerous appearances on Dean Martin's comedy programs of the '60s and '70s but his lasting impact is without a doubt his hundreds of game show appearances. Lee Meriweather was already well-established, too. She'd appeared in movies and television programs in the '50s and '60s but her biggest impact came on Barnaby Jones, as Betty Jones, Barnaby's daughter-in-law. She remained on this series until it's end in 1980.

Richard Dawson, of course, remained a panelist on Match Game upon the cancellation of Masquerade Party in 1975 but then the opportunity came up to host a brand new series in the works. Once Family Feud got underway in 1976, Dawson hosted that series and continued to appear as a panelist on Match Game through 1978, becoming one of the most recognizable faces on television...certainly one of the most popular with game show viewers. Family Feud's origins, ironically, are tied to the Audience Match bonus round segment on Match Game. In the bonus round, the winning contestant from the first half of the game got the chance to win a smaller amount of money if he/she matched a response given by a choice of 3 panelists. The possible correct answers were based upon previously conduced popularity surveys by Match Game audiences. Once a contestant picked their choice of which of the 3 celebrities they felt gave the best answer, the hidden responses were revealed. Then, in the second part of the bonus round, the contestant had to match a celebrity one-on-one where the game play was reversed and the jackpot was significantly higher. This time the contestant picked only 1 celebrity. The object of the second part of the bonus round was to try and name the most popular response and hope that the celebrity had written down that same answer. Once the celebrity was done writing their answer (as the show's iconic think music played in the background), the contestant would give their verbal answer, and then the celebrity revealed their reply on the standard blue paper used in the game. Most times the celebrity and contestant matched...but for suspense/drama the celebrity, or the host, would prolong the conclusion for several seconds.

This survey/poll guessing idea was expanded to even greater fame on Family Feud. Dawson was often the celebrity on Match Game that contestants always chose in the bonus round.

In the Feud game, however, there were no fill in the blank questions...instead, Dawson would read a question from a recent survey and the game board could be made of anywhere from 6 to 10 hidden answers, for example, ranked from most popular to least popular. The control of the game board was determined by a face-off round. Whoever named the most popular answer during the face-off got control for the rest of their family and a chance to guess all the answers. If a response given wasn't included in the survey the team would get an X. Three red X's caused the control of the game to shift to the opposing family who only had to guess one unrevealed response and they'd win the money accumulated in that round.

Richard Dawson hosted Family Feud on ABC-TV and in Syndication, concurrently. The ABC version ran from 1976 through 1985. The Syndicated version, research shows, began in September 1977 as a weekly program but then expanded to 5 days a week beginning in 1980. This meant that it aired 10 first-run episodes every week! 5 would air on ABC and another 5 aired in Syndication. The syndicated version of the game ended it's run first. It would later have the unenviable assignment of competing with the massively popular Wheel of Fortune during 1983-1984 and then, Jeopardy!, starting in 1984-1985. The two game shows already had a somewhat built-in audience from the start. Wheel of Fortune had been airing on daytime television since 1975 on NBC with Chuck Woolery and Susan Stafford. Pat Sajak came on board in 1981 and has remained the host ever since. Vanna White replaced Stafford in 1982. Jeopardy! on the other hand had been a long running game show once hosted by Art Fleming. It had left the air, ironically, a few days before Wheel of Fortune hit the air in 1975. The new host of Jeopardy!, Alex Trebek, was no stranger to game shows but it is this program with which he'll forever be identified. The two game shows are still on the air...still airing back-to-back in many markets.

Family Feud, meanwhile, left the syndicated market in May 1985 largely do to the massive popularity of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! and then in the fall of 1985 the ABC version ended. Afterward, Dawson pretty much went into what could be interpreted as semi-retirement, appearing in a film called The Running Man, in 1987 but was eventually lured back to Family Feud in 1994. Ray Combs had been the host of the series from it's revival in 1988. Like Dawson, Combs was hosting a network (CBS) and a syndicated version concurrently. A slip in ratings caused the producers to seek out Dawson prior to the start of the 1994 season...and after a 9 year absence Richard Dawson was back at the daily game show grind. The return didn't last too long, though. The CBS version had ended in 1993 but the syndicated version was still on the air and Dawson hosted it's final season, 1994-1995. He went into official retirement in 1995. He remained quite popular, though, because reruns of the original Family Feud and the '70s version of Match Game drew big ratings for the Game Show Network, a niche-driven channel, throughout the '90s and into the next decade.

Richard Dawson passed away on June 2, 2012 of esophageal cancer at the age of 79.

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