R.I.P., Richard Dawson

If the question is, “Name a TV personality whose easy charm and wry demeanor made him an emblematic game-show host of the format’s ’70s golden age,” the no. 1 answer would have to be Richard Dawson, the Match Game panelist, Family Feud host, and all-around home-sick-from-school-watching-daytime-TV staple, who died Saturday of complications from esophageal cancer at the age of 79.

Dawson got his big break in the early ’60s, when he auditioned to play Colonel Hogan, the wise-guy American P.O.W. on Hogan’s Heroes. CBS brass found him too British for the role, which eventually went to Bob Crane. But they cast Dawson as Hogan’s Stalag mate Peter Newkirk, a Cockney-accented, vaudeville-trained RAF corporal and master safecracker whose repertoire also included card tricks, sleight-of-hand magic, disguises, and impersonations of Churchill, Bogart, and Hitler.

Playing an all-purpose hustler probably wasn’t much of a stretch for Dawson. The son of a munitions-plant worker and a moving-truck driver, he grew up poor on the south coast of England. He left home at 14, won almost $5,000 in boxing matches with his shipmates, did musical comedy on the stage in London and New York, married the British sex symbol Diana Dors, slipped into films with an uncredited appearance as a British soldier in 1962’s The Longest Day, and onto television on The Dick Van Dyke Show (as rakish bird impressionist “Racy” Tracy Rattigan) and The Outer Limits and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour before finally landing the part of Newkirk.

Satirist Stan Freberg’s tagline for Hogan’s sparked controversy: “If you loved World War II, you’ll love Hogan’s Heroes.” They got letters. But they also got ratings, and Dawson & Co. remained guests of the Luftwaffe from 1965 until 1971. (During the show’s run, Dawson introduced Crane to John Henry Carpenter, who’d help Crane document his sexual exploits on home video and was later found not guilty of bludgeoning the actor to death with a tripod, a bizarre incident later dramatized in Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus.)

He was a working entertainer from then on, and did whatever there was to do. The ’60s happened, so Dawson cut a psychedelic-pop single, “The Children’s Parade” b/w “Apples & Oranges,” a “Strawberry Fields”–ian fruit-fugue for organ and harpsichord, pitched somewhere between Shatner and Syd Barrett. Last line: “Pick them for me, because [pause] I am [longer pause] dead.” (It’s like he knew!)

By the early ’70s, he was a wry and amiable TV omnipresence, less on television than of television. He did two years on Laugh-In, played Dick Van Dyke’s neighbor on the third season of The New Dick Van Dyke Show, logged breezy couch time on Merv Griffin’s talk show and Vin Scully’s, mystery-guested on What’s My Line?, helped zing his former Laugh-In bosses Dan Rowan and Dick Martin on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast. A dais full of jovial famous people destined to be remembered mostly for having been famous proved to be Dawson’s comfort zone; in 1973, he became a panelist on CBS’s celebrity-cutups revival of Match Game, and he held down the bottom-row center slot for five years as stars of varying wattage (from Nipsey Russell to Adrienne Barbeau to Robert “Bert Cooper” Morse!) came and cracked themselves up and went.

Charles Nelson Reilly — in his yachting cap, triple-doubling every entendre, camp as the year is long, a human seltzer-gun spreading the sillies like typhus in a Civil War field hospital — was Match Game‘s flamboyant id. But true players always knew to call on Dawson — whose shrewdness as a filler-in of blanks was as impressive as his collection of turtlenecks and rumpus-room-sofa-patterned sport coats — when the Super Match rolled around. In 1978, the show’s producers introduced the Star Wheel, which paired up contestants with a randomly chosen celebrity, in part because when given a choice, nearly everybody picked Richard.

He laughed all the way to his own show, Family Feud, in 1976, and all the way through it. Unexpected answers acted on him like Joker gas, and segments frequently derailed so that Dawson could roll around behind the podium or wipe away tears of helpless mirth. America found it entertaining to watch Dawson find Americans entertaining. America was also OK with Dawson getting familiar with its women; he kissed thousands upon thousands of female Feud-ers, usually on the mouth, telling them, “This is for luck.” Somehow this never seemed creepy or Bob Barker–ish, although the fact that Dawson laid lips on white and black contestants alike was considered daring or deplorable, depending on whom you surveyed. Dawson first kissed his second wife, Gretchen Johnson, when her family played the Feud in 1981; she successfully picked “An argument” as “Something that could kill a lively party.” They were married in 1991.

By 1985, when Dawson handed off Family Feud to the first of a series of successors — Ray Combs, who later committed suicide — the show was legendary. In his seminal mass-media polemic “Within the Context of No Context,” New Yorker writer George W.S. Trow sardonically referred to a question about the average weight of an American woman as the most important moment in the history of television, exemplifying as it did America’s Dumb Dora–ish embrace of the meaningless authority of statistics. Bill Murray mocked Dawson on Saturday Night Live, smarmily interrogating the Coneheads. It’s a long walk back to France if you don’t get this one right, Prymatt. And on the classic “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin’ to Fuck With” (name a reason to protect your neck!) RZA rhymed “My style is awesome” with “causin’ more family feuds than Richard Dawson,” then turned the quiz master’s catchphrase into a threat: “Survey said, you’re dead / Fatal flying guillotine, chop off your fuckin’ head.”

But nobody satirized Dawson — and the oily charm of game-show presenters in general — as brilliantly as Dawson did in 1987’s The Running Man. Arnold Schwarzenegger starred as Ben Richards, dodging “stalkers” in a televised fight-for-your-life gauntlet staged by the entertainment division of the Justice Department in police-state 2019; Dawson, winking ironically at his own genial public image, played Damon Killian, the show’s villainous, ratings-hungry, chain-smoking demagogue of a host, who calls Arnold “cutie,” shamelessly stokes the bloodlust of his audience, and says things like, “It’s all part of life’s rich pattern, Brenda, and you better fucking get used to it.” Killian’s codependent catchphrase “Who loves you, and who do you love?” even looped through a minor techno hit in 1992.

It’s one of the great ’80s-action-movie villain performances. And while the script gave Arnold some of his memorably idiotic one-liners — Ben, on the whereabouts of a guy he’s just finished cutting in half with a chainsaw: “He had to split” — it’s Dawson who delivers the finest zinger. While strapped to the rocket sled that’s about to fire him into battle, Schwarzenegger stares Dawson down. In a fairly gratuitous nod to another well-known Schwarzenegger movie, Arnold says, “Killian! I’ll be back.”

For a second, the game-show host is thrown off his game. Then, recovering the classically Dawsonian aplomb of an indestructible entertainment-biz lifer who always knew the score, Killian smiles and says, “Only in a rerun.”

Filed Under: In Memoriam, Richard Dawson, Obituary

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.