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Originally published August 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 12, 2007 at 4:02 PM

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Remembering Merv Griffin, 1925-2007

Merv Griffin, the entertainment mogul, singer, talk-show host, horseman, and creator of "Jeopardy! " and "Wheel of Fortune" died Sunday...

The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun

Merv Griffin, the entertainment mogul, singer, talk-show host, horseman, and creator of "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune" died Sunday after a bout with a recurrence of cancer.

Spokeswoman Marcia Newberger confirmed Griffin's death in a statement issued Sunday morning.

Griffin, 82, was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles in mid-July after a recurrence of the prostate cancer he battled in 1996. It was found during a routine examination.

After an initial upbeat news release confirming that the star was battling cancer, there was no further word from the Griffin camp until Sunday.

The Emmy-winning creator of "Jeopardy!" "Wheel of Fortune" and the host of the iconic "The Merv Griffin Show" talk program kept a 250-acre ranch in La Quinta, Calif. He fell in love with the desert after visiting Johnny Carson in 1986 to see Jimmy Connors play tennis.

Jack Jones, the noted vocalist and desert resident, mourned Griffin's death.

He was "not only a good friend and compassionate man for so many people and so many causes, but also one of the finest interviewers who ever hit television. He listens," Jones said.

"So many talk show hosts don't listen. But that was the key to his success. He listened to everything every guest had to say."

Locally, Griffin was an active desert resident who was a supporter of the La Quinta Arts Festival, the owner of the Merv Griffin Givenchy Resort & Spa in Palm Springs, Calif. and most recently, the developer of an upscale horse community on a section of his ranch.

Actress Kaye Ballard, who lives in Rancho Mirage, Calif., said Griffin never changed in the 57 years she knew him.

"He's an icon, really, as far as television is concerned," she said, adding, "He was always the same. He never changed with all his wealth and all his success. He was just as great now as he was then. ... That's saying a lot."

As a savvy producer who made megamillions, Griffin's "impact is huge," said Kevin Belinkoff, vice-president of production for the Game Show Network. "If you look at 'Wheel of Fortune' and 'Jeopardy!' — those are the two most successful shows in syndication."

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Though he moved to the desert at age 61, Griffin vowed to never retire — and he never did.

"Retirement is death. I do not want to check into a house on a golf course," he told The Desert Sun.

He planned a big horse farm and kept producing TV ideas and making real-estate deals. As a horseman, he was well-respected at racetracks throughout the nation.

He owned Stevie Wonderboy, which earned a Breeder's Cup Juvenile win and an Eclipse Horse of the Year award before injury forced the horse to stud in Kentucky.

He was a frequent sight on Millionaire's Row at the Kentucky Derby.

Mervyn Edward Griffin was born in San Mateo, Calif., on July 6, 1925. He got an early singing job on nationally syndicated KFRC in San Francisco in 1944, later joining Freddie Martin Big Band, one of the era's top swing ensembles.

He recorded, "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts," which would become his signature song, in 1950.

Griffin married Julann Wright in 1958 and had a son, Anthony Patrick. He and Wright divorced in 1976.

In 1986, Griffin sold his Merv Griffin Enterprises to Columbia Pictures Entertainment for a then-astounding figure of $250 million, making him one of the richest men in show business. He then continued to run it. The sale put him in a rare position.

"You're presented with every possibility in the world," he said in 1987. "You could go mad from it all. You wouldn't believe the proposals that come across my desk — ships, shopping centers, hotels."

He bought one of his favorite hotels, the Beverly Hilton in 1987, which he later sold in 2003. He operated the Merv Griffin Givenchy Resort & Spa in Palm Springs and other properties in locales ranging from Arizona to Ireland. He also bought the Resorts Casino in Atlantic City from Donald Trump.

The latter soon plunged into Chapter 11, but Griffin continued his enthusiasm. "I'm having the time of my life," he said in 1992, while preparing a New Year's Eve show. "I love putting on these shows."

That enthusiasm came partly from his plush situation.

"One of the cool things about Merv is that he's in a position to produce shows just for the love of TV," Ray Brune, the television chief of Merv Griffin Entertainment, said last November. "Making money is not the priority. ... Every day is like being in graduate school — watching him work, negotiate, produce, create and manage people."

Griffin remained the executive producer of "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" and of course continued to earn royalties every time the "Jeopardy!" theme, which he composed, was played.

In 2006, he estimated those royalties for the 30-second "Final Jeopardy!" theme at $70 million.

A collection of Griffin's interviews with celebrities through the 1962-1986 run of his talk show was released within the past year.

Memorable interviews include: Martin Luther King Jr., Orson Wells, John Lennon, Laurence Olivier and four different presidents.

His gregarious, expansive personality never wavered.

Producer Dick Taylor said Griffin "befriended me immediately" when he met the star as a young publicist for Griffin's show in 1975.

He even invited Taylor to his home in Carmel, Calif., and the two enjoyed a night out, complete with dinner and ice cream.

"He embraced everybody," said Taylor, who represented Griffin during the 1970s and 1980s.

"I don't think Merv forgot anybody. It was a memory of the person. It was deep and it was genuine and it was real."

That love and caring, Taylor said, was "the spirit of Merv."

That spirit — the drive to create, entertain and do business — was with Griffin to the end.

Within the past year, the 82-year-old:

• Launched a full 400-home equestrian development on his 250-acre ranch in La Quinta.

• Started a full-scale worldwide luxury real-estate company.

• Launched a new game show "Merv Griffin's Crosswords," that is slated to open in syndication nationwide Sept. 10.

• Helped support the burgeoning country music career of John Wayne's granddaughter.

• Escorted former first lady Nancy Reagan to formal dinners and other events.

• Booked a gig to sing at the Hollywood Bowl.

That date — scheduled with Pink Martini, for Sept. 14-16 — sadly, will not come to pass.

Griffin told The Desert Sun in 2006 a little bit about his success secret:

"You have to be constantly turning the page, which prevents me from getting caught up in any negativity. I just keep moving and enjoy the ride," he said.

Contributing: Gannett News Service TV Critic Mike Hughes and Cincinnati Enquirer TV critic John Kiesewetter.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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