Lauded by some as the best-loved game show host of all time, Dawson continues to thrive by virtue of his loyal fans.
Okay, I admit it. I have a crush on Richard Dawson. Had I been born forty years earlier than I was, I would have been one of those blushing, giggly girls appearing on either Match Game or Family Feud, hoping only to get a kiss. Unfortunately for me, these days Dawson isn’t kissing anyone but his wife Gretchen (a former contestant on Family Feud). Fortunately for him, the rumors that he is dead are completely untrue. Dawson is healthy, happy, and lives in California with his wife and daughter.
But seven days a week, game show fans can catch Dawson in his prime. Thanks to GSN, Dawson lives again in Match Game and Family Feud fame. Today, he is still one of the most loved game show hosts of all time. Dawson’s famous reputation for kisses began on Family Feud, where Dawson made no bones about kissing every single female contestant – chastely enough for show executives to let him slide. Regardless of race or age, Dawson puckered up time and time again. Some guests were much more eager for the kiss than even he was – and several Match Game contestants even asked for Dawson’s kisses. One young female shyly asked Gene Rayburn, host of Match Game, “Can I kiss Richard?” near the start of the show, causing the audience to crack up. Richard didn’t even manage to look surprised, but puckered up like the gentleman he is. Who could turn down so sweet a plea?
Dawson was born November 20, 1932, and dubbed Colin Emm upon birth. Later, he legally changed his name to his stage name, Richard Dawson. He was born in Gosport, England, and ran away from home at the age of fourteen to join the Merchant Marine, where he pursued boxing. After moving to Los Angeles, Richard won his way into American hearts via his role as Cpl. Peter Newkirk on Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971). The show enjoyed high ratings during its run, and Dawson was a breakout comedic star.
He moved on to the now-famous Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In for the ’72 and ’73 seasons, and appeared on The New Dick Van Dyke Show from 1973 to 1974. At this time, Match Game had begun its run way back in 1962. When the show’s format was re-vamped in 1973, Richard Dawson was the first regular panelist to appear on the show. Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly joined him later in the year, and the fate of Match Game ’73 was sealed.
The show featured six celebrity panelists, who would fill in the blanks on questions with their own answers. Two contestants would compete to see who could make the most matches before going on to play Audience Match and Super Match rounds for big money (at the time). In watching re-runs of the show on GSN, fans see that show host Gene Rayburn often took something of a back seat to Dawson, who charmed audiences and contestants alike, even working his magic on fellow panelists. But when the updated show premiered still using the same sedate, rather boring questions from the earlier 60s version, even Dawson’s trademark charisma couldn’t help the ratings.
CBS executives decided to cancel the show, and Match Game ’73 was scheduled to die before it had the chance to really live. The contract on the show’s season was to be played out before the show was kicked to the proverbial curb. The creative staff of the show asked writers to add more suggestive language to the questions, making them bawdier and, by extension, tons funnier. Since the show was scheduled to cancel, the producers agreed on the racier questions.
The next thing you know, Match Game ’73 became the highest-rated game show on television. The show started to draw in huge numbers, averaging about 11 million daily viewers. Suddenly, the little show that couldn’t was the most watched daytime TV show – ever. In 1975, Match Game PM was introduced in the evenings, and Dawson continued to shine as a regular.
Famous game show guru Mark Goodson liked Dawson so well that he became Goodson’s top choice as the host of a new game show, Family Feud. Something of a Match Game spinoff, Feud was an almost instant success. Debuting in the summer of 1976 on ABC, Family Feud would live on to become one of the most enduring game shows in history.
At the beginning of each show, Richard Dawson walked to center stage, impeccably dressed, to chat amicably with his TV and studio audience. In one memorable 1984 episode, Dawson proudly showed off his passport after he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. He was the host of Family Feud until 1985. The show eventually surpassed even Match Game in ratings.
During his time on Feud, Dawson distinguished himself as one of the greatest game show hosts in television history. His smooth charm, his zinging one-liners, and his good-natured teasing of contestants established him as a gentleman, as a jokester, and as someone you couldn’t help but to love. Or is that my crush talking? Fans displayed displeasure or dismay (depending on personal beliefs) regarding Dawson’s indiscriminate kissing. Some were terribly annoyed that he showed no preference or discrimination among races, others terribly impressed that he did so. During Dawson’s final Feud sign off, he expressed pride that he kissed all the girls who appeared on the show. Today, his behavior would hardly be extraordinary. Back then, there were many who opposed Dawson’s technique.
The opposers were no doubt all men, as not a single lady on Feud seemed hesitant or annoyed when enjoying Dawson’s kisses on air. Dawson was followed on Feud by Ray Combs, who tragically committed suicide several years after taking over the hosting duties. Later, the show featured portulent comedian Louie Anderson, who tarnished the show with some scandalous transgressions. Today, Family Feud airs on FOX and is hosted by everyone’s favorite handyman Richard Karn (best known for his role as Al on Home Improvement). You would never have known the man looked so good in a suit, and to his credit Karn is the best host the show has enjoyed since Dawson’s sad departure in ’85.
The real mystery of Richard Dawson’s life centers around his tenure on Match Game. The show was enjoying great ratings, it was airing ten times a week, and by all accounts Dawson was the most popular panelist. He was chosen most often (by male and female contestants) for Super Match and Audience Match rounds, always happy to kiss the female winners and shake hands good-naturedly with the male ones. The celebrity panelists had the run of the show, Rayburn played straight man to their crazed antics, and Dawson’s popularity only grew as Family Feud became a hit show on its own merit.
So, what went wrong? In one 1978 episode of Match Game, Dawson refused to smile even when the audience asked him to and Rayburn physically tried to force him to. In his very last Match Game taping, a Match Game PM episode of 1978, Dawson acted bored, out of sorts, and only cracked a hint of a smile twice. Rumors and mystery shroud Dawson’s departure from the show, which incidentally coincided with the show’s downfall. The CBS run of Match Game ended a year later, in 1979, coming to life later in 1983 for a lackluster season on NBC. Dawson never returned to the show in any of its later incarnations.
Some reports say that Dawson left the show, stating he was not “happy.” Other rumors indicate that a contractual dispute forced Dawson’s hand and prompted him to bail on the show. Fans say the man was grossly overworked, taping daytime and nighttime versions of both his game shows on a rigorous schedule, and one report even claims that Dawson was fired for his grumpy on-air Match Game behavior. It is possible that the Richard Dawson-Mark Goodson private feud prompted his leaving, but as Dawson continued to shine for seven years on Family Feud this is highly unlikely. What is more likely is that Mark Goodson’s nose was tweaked out of joint with Dawson’s ’78 MG departure, things coming to a head in later years between the two strong personalities. One rumor claims that Goodson stated that Richard Dawson would not work for him as long as he lived. Whether by accident or design, that promise was made good. Dawson came back to Family Feud in 1994 only after the death of Goodson, but by that time the show was hopelessly in decline and it was canceled again in 1995.
Rumors and innuendo aside, Richard Dawson continues to thrive as a part of American TV history. Even young women can’t help but to form small crushes on the charming host who is always filled with smiles and kisses. Though it is doubtful that Dawson will re-appear on the small screen this late in life (he’s in his seventies), fans can still watch him in his heyday on GSN, a network that obligingly airs all the Dawson Family Feuds and Match Games every single day of the week. And may I just say, thank you Game Show Network.