Grave Sightings: Merv Griffin
For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like cemeteries to boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my photo library of interesting tombstones to good use.
Though many know him from his talk shows and game shows, Merv Griffin was a man of many talents. From novelty song hitmaker to real estate mogul and thoroughbred horse breeder, he did pretty much everything he felt like doing—and he did it all well. Given everything else he had a hand in during his life, it’s not too surprising that he even wrote his own epitaph. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
Long before Jeopardy! and even The Merv Griffin Show, Mervyn Griffin, Jr. was just a kid singing in his church choir in San Mateo, California. He was so good that he landed a job as a big band singer by the time he was 19. He was the vocalist for Freddy Martin and his Orchestra when they made this song a top 10 hit in 1949:
Griffin made enough money to fund his own record label and album, Songs by Merv Griffin; he was touring when Doris Day “discovered” him at a nightclub. She arranged for a screen test, and before he knew it, Merv found himself on the silver screen. He wasn’t crazy about it, though, so he bought out his contract and switched to TV, where he hosted game shows called Play Your Hunch and Keep Talking. He also guest-hosted on The Tonight Show in 1962 during the transition between Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. This led to his very own daytime talk show, which was a bit of a dud and was cancelled the next year.
Then Jeopardy! came along. Merv was mulling over a new game show while on an airplane with his wife, Julann. She asked if it was one based on knowledge and trivia. When Merv responded that the networks weren’t too keen on those shows after the Quiz Show scandal, Julann suggested that the host just give the contestants the answer. Merv didn’t get it. “OK, the answer is 5280,” Julann said. Merv considered, then realized that the question was, “How many feet are in a mile?” They played this game the whole way home, and by the time their flight landed in New York City, Jeopardy! was born.
And if creating the world’s most famous game show wasn’t enough of a life achievement for Merv, he also composed the world’s most famous “thinking” music—the Jeopardy! song, originally called “A Time for Tony,” was written as a lullaby for his son. He once estimated that the little ditty had earned him more than $70 million over his lifetime. Here's an hour of it, just in case you really need to ponder something.
Of course, in the middle of all of this, Griffin launched a syndicated talk show called The Merv Griffin Show (exponentially more successful than the 1963 go-around) that was famous for its eclectic and sometimes controversial mix of guests. It was on the air for 21 years and won 11 Emmy Awards. It also became the plot of a pretty memorable Seinfeld episode. Here's Merv interviewing Salvador Dali in 1965.
After his show ended in 1986, Merv proclaimed himself bored and bought the Beverly Hilton Hotel from Barron Hilton. He also purchased an Atlantic City hotel from Donald Trump, and owned a resort in Palm Springs, a boutique hotel in Ireland, and an entire island in the Bahamas.
Oh, and he was also a big fan of horseracing. His colt, Stevie Wonderboy, won the $1.5 million Breeder’s Cup Juvenile in 2005. It may have been one of his proudest moments—“There’s a lot of excitement winning Emmy Awards and all of that stuff,” Griffin said after the win. "Then there’s the fighting with Donald Trump, which is fun. But this is extraordinary.”
Sadly, the multitalented entrepreneur died from a recurrence of prostate cancer two years after the Breeder’s Cup win, before he could realize his dream of having one of his horses win the Kentucky Derby. But don’t cry for Merv Griffin—he realized more dreams than most people can even imagine.
If you’re a fan of Merv’s incredibly varied work (including Wheel of Fortune), you can stop and tell him thanks the next time you’re in L.A. He’s at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, and as you can see, he had a sense of humor about his livelihood. He penned a couple of epitaphs in his 1980 autobiography, including “Stay tuned,” but ultimately, his family went with Griffin’s “I will not be right back after this message.”
See all entries in our Grave Sighting series here.