On August 12, 2007, at the age of 82, singer, actor, legendary television personality and entrepreneur Merv Griffin passed away from cancer. But his legacy lives on.
His newest show, “Crossroads,” launched in national syndication on September 10th, and his creations “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” are the two most popular television game shows ever. For 23 years, Griffin interviewed celebrities and more esoteric guests on “The Merv Griffin Show,” and helped launch the careers of entertainers like Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno.
He also was extremely successful in real estate ventures, buying and selling hotels, including the Beverly Hilton. Griffin loved to spend summers in Carmel where his friends say he enjoyed both the nature and the privacy. His Carmel Valley estate and vineyard is currently on the market. Griffin also spent much of his time helping out with charities, often making donations behind the scenes. Survived by his only son, Tony, Griffin left behind friends and fans who mourn the unassuming billionaire behind the Griffin Group.
Carmel Magazine spoke with Griffin’s friends Clint Eastwood and Monique Gardiner to get a first-hand glimpse into the life of the man Larry King referred to as “Merv of All Trades.”
CLINT EASTWOOD ON MERV GRIFFIN
Carmel Magazine: When did you first meet Merv Griffin?
Clint Eastwood: I was on his program when he broadcast from New York in the early days. Both Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin broadcasted there, and I was out there doing personal appearances for “Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More,” those pictures back in the ’60s. I appeared on his program as a guest a few times in New York and on Johnny Carson’s as well, and then gradually Merv moved West. It turned out Merv was from San Mateo, from Northern California, so we had that in common. And eventually I was living in Carmel and we had a tennis tournament in Pebble Beach for years there that brought in a lot of celebrities and Merv came and played tennis and he bought a home in Pebble Beach and then eventually out in the [Carmel] Valley. So he became part of the community there in Carmel.
CM: What do you think he saw in this community that he liked, that appealed to him to want a home here?
Clint Eastwood: I think like a lot of people who are born and raised in Northern California he kind of gravitated back to the Northern California region. I think he spent a lot of time in Carmel when he was younger and just liked it. It was near all of his relatives and sisters and various relatives, Uncle Elmer who lived on the Peninsula up north. So he just gravitated back to his roots.
CM: What do you think it is about Merv that made him so well respected by so many people?
Clint Eastwood: I think the thing that made him a success was that he was very interested in a lot of things. He was interested in people. When people came on his show as guests he sort of threw the attention their way rather than a “and then I wrote” kind of attitude. He would make people feel very, very welcome and very, very much at home. So he gathered a terrific list of celebrities. Everyone from you name it,Tony Bennett, all the singers, and Frank Sinatra. Then he’d have actors like Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, all the name actors you could think of, and also scientists. He was interested in a lot of subjects and I think a person who is interested in a lot of subjects makes a very good host for a show. A very good interviewer.
CM: I know you were on the show more than one time.
Clint Eastwood: I appeared numerous times on both Carson and “The Griffin Show” and “The Mike Douglas Show” and “The David Frost Show.” Over the years you come up on a lot of those when you are out promoting a movie or something like that. They would run a film clip and talk about the forthcoming movie. The difference between Merv and a lot of the people was that he would look at the movie. There are people who do that now. If you go on “The Jay Leno Show” he sees the movie ahead of time, or Charlie Rose for instance….He always knows a tremendous amount about the subject when you come on so he can ask you intelligent questions. Merv would see the movie and then he could ask you a lot of questions on it.
CM: And so that set him apart from various other shows at the time?
Clint Eastwood: Yeah. He was a great friend to a lot of people. I remember attending a dinner at his house in Carmel Valley. He had Cary Grant, Lucille Ball, James Stewart, everybody. He was also a close friend with Johnny Carson. I remember going to Johnny Carson’s house in Malibu with Merv and other people and they all interacted with one another, those various talk show hosts. But also Merv, the thing that put him apart, was he didn’t just do the talk show. He was entrepreneurial, he invested in a lot of things, he invested in properties, and he’d think up these great game show ideas. I remember him telling me about “Jeopardy” and these things and I said, “Boy that doesn’t sound like anything,” and all of a sudden it comes on and it’s the number one game show on television or something and you go, ‘Well that shows you what little I know.’ So he just had a very good instinct for that sort of thing.
CM: Do you have a favorite memory of a time with him?
Clint Eastwood: His son Tony told an anecdote about once we were in the Hog’s Breath Inn and some ladies came up to us…[Merv] had this habit of when people were making a nuisance of themselves or being insulting, he would act like he was very friendly, but he’d throw in obscenities. It would go on like that and everybody would start laughing of course, but the person half the time didn’t know because they thought they hadn’t heard right.
CM: Oh that’s great. So this was at Hog’s Breath and some ladies were irritating you?
Clint Eastwood: Well, sometimes people stay on stage too long…But he used to play at the tennis tournaments all the time and he was instrumental in getting a lot of other celebrities to come and play in the tournament, which was a charity event that we held at Pebble Beach. He participated and he would emcee whatever shows we would have, Dinah Shore singing, he was terrific.
I remember one time we were up at Lake Tahoe and Merv was there playing tennis and a bunch of actors were out there playing tennis in a tournament, and they didn’t have a show. Don Hambleton was the host but he didn’t have a show, somebody had backed out, and at the last minute he asked Merv to put on the show. Merv said, ‘You’re not asking me now are you?’ He said, ‘Yeah. We only have about two hours before it happens’ He said,‘Okay, I’ll do it, but I don’t want anybody interfering. Everybody said sure, sure, so he got all these actors, mostly entertainers and singers and musicians to play, and he had them only sing one song…The whole show went by in about 45-50 minutes but it had a great energy and turned out to be one of the better shows he put on.
CM: What would you say his legacy is in the entertainment industry?
Clint Eastwood: Well, his legacy is that he brought attention to a lot of people who were moderately known or not known at all by having them appear on his show. And of course he’s owned hotels, and he owned the Beverly Hilton Hotel for awhile and the Gene Autry Hotel in Palm Springs. He was just a guy who wanted to do things and he knew how to put things together. He was generally, I think, nice to everybody. Everybody will think of him as a happy face, somebody who enjoyed living. I’ve talked with Tony, his son, recently. I’ve known him since he was 10 years old and he’s turned out to be a terrific young man with a great family. I know he’ll miss his dad tremendously, but he knows the legacy that his dad brought on and the joy that his father brought to a lot of people.
MONIQUE GARDINER ON MERV GRIFFIN
Monique Gardiner, and her late husband, John Gardiner, were close friends with Merv Griffin since the 1950s and Griffin was a frequent visitor to their Gardiner Resort properties in Scottsdale and Carmel Valley. Griffin emceed the Friends of Hospice Senator’s Cup fundraiser every year at John Gardiner’s Camelback Resort. Mrs. Gardiner has a collection of photographs of Merv and famous friends having fun, and she has countless stories of Merv putting on skits and joking around with his famous friends.
CM: So Merv had a great sense of humor?
Monique Gardiner: Merv loved to laugh…he was mischievous…and a good reminder not to take yourself so seriously.
Mrs. Gardiner shows a picture of Merv with Eva Gabor looking happy.
Monique Gardiner: [Merv and Eva] were not only just good friends but they [had] mutual respect for each other…I say this politely when I say it…sometimes when you are dealing with the Hollywood element there is a lack of a lot of sincerity…[But] they had respect not only for their specific businesses but their lives.
CM: The fundraiser that you hosted at your Scottsdale property—was Merv always a part of it?
Monique Gardiner: He only missed one time. They raised $4.5 million over an 18-year period for hospice… Merv was a very fine tennis player…he had a great cutting backhand slice.
CM: What were some of the qualities that you most treasured about his friendship?
Monique Gardiner: I think I’m going to quote my husband. John said to Merv, ‘Every time you come down all we do is laugh. And it makes even the greyest days sunny.’ He really was a funny man, and he could laugh at himself.