Monday, February 27, 2012

    While this space is usually reserved for a look back a the great columns of Jim Murray as they relate to the sporting news of today, we felt that we would be remiss to ignore the fact that the 84th Academy Awards presentation was held Sunday. Prior to becoming a sports writer, Murray was an integral part of the Hollywood entertainment beat for Time Magazine.
    He was responsible for many of the memorable faces that graced the cover of that iconic publication, including Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball, John Wayne and Charlton Heston.
    So let's take a look back at a 1987 column — "Merv Picked Right Racket? Oh, Really?" — about a tinsel town legend, Merv Griffin.



Merv Picked Right Racket? Oh, Really?

    The richest man on Sunset Boulevard was driving along it, idly listening to the car radio. The announcer broke for a commercial message, promising to come right back with the name of the man who, according to Forbes Magazine, was currently the richest man in the entertainment industry. The driver vagrantly wondered who it might be. Bob Hope? Aaron Spelling? Bill Cosby? A moment later, he almost crashed into a curbside tree.
    "It was me!" recalls Merv Griffin in wonderment. "I had to pull off to the side of the road and sit there hyperventilating. I thought, 'How dare they?!' I glanced into cars going by and wondered whether they were listening to the same program. I hoped not."
    Merv Griffin arrived at his high estate, driving along and finding himself one of the richest men in town, from a standing start as a guy who used to stand in front of Freddy Martin's band in the Coconut Grove and sing "I Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts."
    Actually, Merv is the black sheep of the Griffin family. He comes from a long line of championship tennis players and they thought he might follow in the tradition. Uncle Clarence was three times U.S. men's doubles champion with the storied William (Little Bill) Johnston, and another time was runner-up at Forest Hills with John Strachan. Uncles Milton and Elmer were world-class players, as was his father, Mervin, Sr.
    "We all had lace curtain Irish names," explains Merv.
    The family parlor might have had muslin, but the lace curtain Griffins were very big in the ad court.
    Merv Griffin Jr. drifted south from his San Francisco and abandoned his tennis roots. He became the band singer for Martin's long run at the Grove. "It was the place for Hollywood in those days. Howard Hughes was there every night. Van Johnson used to grab the mike and sing. Bing Crosby used to dance by and say 'Don't pronounce your words so carefully, San Francisco. Slur them a little bit.' "
    Hollywood as they say, beckoned, and Merv became the lead in such non-Academy epics as "Cattle Town," "So This Is Love," and "By The Light Of The Silvery Moon." Winces Merv: "I was supposed to be Doris Day's co-star. But I photographed too young."
    It was tennis that got him out of films. "I hated the movies.”
    One day, Uncle Elmer had a chance to play Jack Warner in tennis.
    “I can let him win and save your job,” his uncle warned Merv.
    "Kill him!" instructed his nephew. The uncle mowed the Warner brother down in straight sets, love-love, and Merv was suddenly in New York on daytime television.
    It was the day of the quiz show scandals in New York, but Merv's shows were as honest as Uncle Elmer's tennis and he was soon whisking from his run on Broadway's "Finian's Rainbow" to center stage on such classics of the game-show genre as "Play Your Hunch," "Keep Talking," and "Word For Word."
    It was when he sat in for Jack Paar on the Tonight Show (pre-Carson) that his career took off. Merv Griffin had such a disingenuous air about his questioning that his guests frequently found themselves blurting their most intimate secrets and emptying all their closets with an alacrity that fascinated audiences.
    "Merv was so disarming they would forget they were on national TV and get to thinking they were talking to Merv on the bar car of the New York-New Haven-and-Hartford," an associate remembers. "Merv would just sit there and say 'Oh, really!' and 'You're kidding!' and they would fall all over themselves to tell him things they never told anybody."
    Once, when Merv had on the deposed vice-president, Spiro Agnew, his producer came to him in despair. "We can't talk about anything!" he wailed. "Look at the list of things that are off-limits! The most controversial thing on the show will be 'Hello!' "
    Merv just smiled. "Don't worry," he soothed. "Just start the camera."
    Viewers remember that, but the end of the show, Merv was getting away with questions like "And then what did you steal?"
    The Merv Griffin Show was an American institution. Congressmen, thieves, athletes, movie queens, diplomats took his couch. Merv acted as if he were in awe of all of them and played a part that was part autograph-seeker and part prosecutor. The show was more fun than a bugged confessional. It was impossible not to watch — like seeing a guy walk a ledge in a snowstorm.
    Merv tried to maintain his little-boy-in-the-big-city approach, but he was as sophisticated as any of his film-star guests. Once, when he was singing at the Palladium, a young Hollywood High student was president of his fan club. A girl named Carol Burnett.
    But Merv never forgot the fantastic popularity of the game show as a television staple. He put together a pair that were to become the biggest money-makers in the history of the breed and put Merv in the capital grouping that used to belong to guys who owned railroads or oil fields.
    "Wheel of Fortune" became the most watched game show of all time before Merv sold it to Coca Cola for a quarter of a billion dollars. "Jeopardy" was a favorite game show from the White House to the firehouse.
    Merv picked Vanna White out of a pile of photographs to dress "Wheel of Fortune."
    "Which face looks out at you?" he challenged his staff. "You can't have a guy with a ladder going out there changing letters."
    But Merv never got too far from his serve-and-volley background. Like all the Griffins, he yearned for a spot on center court. He played life as if the point were always deuce, but he played tennis to relax.
    His involvement took the form of organizing some of the earliest celebrity tournaments (he credits Clint Eastwood with pioneering them) and this weekend he hosts the Merv Griffin Tennis Tournament at the Riviera Tennis Club as part of the week-long Mita Festival, which annually raises more than a million dollars for United Cerebral Palsy. Bjorn Borg, Stefan Edberg and John McEnroe (if his baby is born) are expected.
    For Merv, it's a natural outgrowth of a lifetime of being able to say "Oh, really?" and "No kidding?" on TV with a perfectly sincere straight face. It's the show biz equivalent of the high lob which the opponent smashes into the net. That shot is a Griffin family tradition. Not only puts you in the finals at Forest Hills but on the cover of Forbes Magazine.

Jim Murray Memorial Foundation | P.O. Box 995 | La Quinta | CA | 92247



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