We end our series about getting to know Match Game regular panelists with Richard Dawson.
Richard was born in England in 1932. His birth name was Colin Lionel Emm, but he legally changed his name to Richard Dawson as an adult. His mother worked in a munitions plant, and his father drove a moving van. His home life must not have been too happy because he joined the Merchant Marine at age 14. He served for three years moving from the laundry room to a waiter. To keep others from learning his real age and to make some money, he began boxing on board the ship and apparently earned $5000.
After his stint with the Marines, he began performing stand-up comedy under the name Dickie Dawson. He began playing clubs in London’s West End. One of those was the Stork Room where he met Diana Dors, England’s blonde bombshell version of Marilyn Monroe. The couple married in 1959. They had two boys, Mark born in 1960, and Gary born in 1962.
When Diana was booked on a talk show in Los Angeles, Richard lied, saying he was a talk show host in England, and told them what he thought was not working on the show. They then hired him, and he hosted the local show for 13 months. In 1964, Diana walked out on Richard and the boys. Richard obtained full custody and the couple officially divorced in 1967. Richard remained in love with her for quite a while. He continued to send her flowers for every birthday and defended her to his friends.
While living in Los Angeles, Richard began auditioning for television. His first acting job was on The Jack Benny Show in 1963. He continued to receive roles throughout the 1960s and was seen on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Outer Limits, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Mr. Terrific, and McCloud.
In 1965, Dawson was offered the role of Captain Robert Hogan on a new show called Hogan’s Heroes. The show was set in a POW camp during World War II where the prisoners run the camp without the German commanders realizing it. He declined the offer because he thought his voice was too British to be realistic. Bob Crane took the part of Hogan, and Dawson accepted the role of Englishman Corporal Peter Newkirk. The show entered the top ten its first year and remained on the air for six seasons, generating 168 episodes for Richard.
Dawson loved to sing and in the early 1970s he released a 45-rpm record. The A side was a psychedelic tune, “His Children’s Parade” and the B side was titled “Apples and Oranges.” During the run of Hogan’s Heroes, Dawson, along with Robert Clary, Ivan Dixon, and Larry Hovis put out an album, “Hogan’s Heroes Sing the Best of World War II,” all songs from the 1940s.
When Hogan’s Heroes was cancelled, he joined the cast of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. He continued to appear on television during the 1970s, showing up on Love American Style, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, McMillan and Wife, Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat.
After the demise of Laugh-In, producer Mark Goodson offered Richard a regular spot on Match Game with Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly. He would be seen on 1397 episodes, the celebrity almost always chosen for the Head-to-Head Match. He was very popular with the fans, displaying a boyish charm, a bit flippant but always a gentleman.
While still participating on Match Game, Richard took on the role of emcee for a new game show, Family Feud that debuted in 1976. His quick wit and ability to put people at ease made him a popular celebrity. His trademarks were saying “Survey says . . .” and kissing all the female contestants. He was nicknamed “The Kissing Bandit” and smooched with about 20,000 women. He said he “kissed them for luck and love,” but the producers did not like it and tried to pressure him to stop. He asked his viewers for their opinion. Fans responded with 704 voting to stop and 14,600 to continue.
In 1978, Richard asked to be released from Match Game, but that request was denied. He was not happy about it, feeling like he was working too much. He apparently became quiet and sullen on the show, refused to interact with the other celebrities and contestants, and stopped joking and flirting. He was then let go. That same year he won the Emmy for Best Game Show Host. He was so popular that he was considered as a replacement for Johnny Carson when he thought about leaving The Tonight Show.
ABC cancelled Family Feud in 1985 and CBS relaunched it in 1988 where it aired till 1993. Dawson would film 2335 Family Feud episodes. The show is still on air having been hosted by Louie Anderson from 1999-2002, Richard Karn from 2002-2006, John O’Hurley from 2006-2010, and Steve Harvey from 2010 to the present.
In April of 1981, the Johnson family appeared on the program. Richard, 49, met Gretchen Johnson, 27. After being together for nine years, they had a daughter Shannon and the couple married in 1991. Richard became a US citizen during their relationship as well.
Dawson was offered the host position on the revival of Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life, but the pilot wasn’t picked up. He also was passed over as host for a game called Trump Card.
In 1994, Family Feud was back on the air in its third version, but it only lasted a short time. Dawson said he promised his young daughter he wouldn’t kiss anyone but her mother, so he did not kiss contestants in the revival.
During the 1960s, Richard appeared in seven big-screen movies, but his most critically acclaimed role was in 1987 when he costarred in Running Man with Arnold Schwartzeneggar, a science fiction movie. He portrayed Damon Killian, an egotistical emcee of a game show. Several people described this character as Richard’s mirror image at various times in his career. Rumors of his dark side emerged from time to time. It was said he was temperamental and that he drank too much. He wanted to be known as more than a game show host.
Unfortunately, he never appeared in another television show or movie, so a game show host and panelist is how most people remember him.
Early in his career, Dawson participated in politics. He marched for civil rights in Alabama with Dr. King, and he campaigned for McGovern. He was described as a “far-out liberal,” but he said he made known he was against Communism.
Richard liked to golf and play pool. He converted one of his bedrooms into an antique pool room.
He was a night person and stayed up late to read and write. He said he read about five books a week.
Richard Dawson passed away in 2012 at 79 from esophageal cancer complications.
Obviously, Dawson had the capacity to become a great actor based on his roles on Hogan’s Heroes and in Running Man. Unfortunately, whether it was being in the right place or being offered the right role, he never got the chance to prove it. While he gave many viewers a lot of pleasure during his thousands of game show episodes, it must have been bittersweet to realize that was his main claim to fame. Hogan’s Heroes can be seen week nights on Me TV. The shows have kept their charm and humor and are fun to watch.