R.I.P. Richard Dawson

Richard Dawson—actor, game-show legend, and all-round celebrity presence—died Saturday at the age of 79. Born Colin Lionel Emm to an English mother and an American father, Dawson joined the Merchant Marine when he was 14, then transitioned into a varied life as a boxer, comedian, singer, and actor. (He was also married, for 7 years, to the blonde sex kitten Diana Dors—the only British film thespian ever to be name-checked in a New York Dolls song. They had two sons.)  

By the time he was 30, the affable Dawson had established a solid enough identity that he was able to parody himself with a guest spot on The Dick Van Dyke Show as the suave English showman “Racy Tracy” Rattigan, one who is not to be trusted alone with your sister. He had his greatest stateside success as the equally slick con man Cpl. Peter Newkirk, the British member of Hogan’s Heroes, which gave Dawson a steady U.S. job from 1965 to 1971. During that show’s run, he achieved footnote status in the annals of true crime by introducing the series’ star, Bob Crane, to the hard-partying video geek John Henry Carpenter, who is widely believed to have been responsible for Crane’s unsolved 1978 murder. (This was later dramatized in Paul Schrader’s 2002 Bob Crane biopic Auto Focus, where Dawson was played by Scottish actor Michael Rodgers.)

 

After Hogan’s Heroes went off the air, Dawson spent a couple years as part of Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In, and later joined the cast of the very short-lived The New Dick Van Dyke Show. But he found arguably his true calling with the 1973 relaunch of Match Game. As a member of the celebrity panel whose job it was to be amusing while coming up with fill-in-the-blank answers, Dawson established himself as a runaway star of the show— naughty, droll, and with an unerring sense of how to string along a contestant. And on those rare occasions when Dawson failed to come through for them, he always got the bad news out quickly and seemed convincingly contrite. The man seemed to genuinely care (sometimes maybe a little too much).

 

Transitioning to a hosting gig seemed natural for Dawson, which he did for the first time on 1974's Masquerade Party, a syndicated flop. But his second shot, the 1976 debut of Family Feud, transformed him into a daytime institution. Viewers tuned in for the weird star power of its host, whose hair and wardrobe made him look like Barnabas Collins’ West Coast cousin, and whose trademark moves included kissing the women contestants (something he did, he said, for "luck") while calling them “darlin’.” Dawson even indulged in political commentary, bashing Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger on the air. (It says a lot about the timidity of daytime TV at the time that these cracks were regarded as controversial, even though neither man was in office at the time.)

Dawson further cemented his association with the show by taking the unusual step to host both the daytime and the evening version that was syndicated to local stations—a heavy workload that forced him to stop appearing on Match Game. He even appeared as himself, hostin’ the Feud, on an episode of Mama’s Family. (Given how he didn't seem to want anyone else associated with his baby, even in jest, it must have pained Dawson a bit that, when the Coneheads did a Family Feud sketch on SNL, they gave his part to Bill Murray.)

 

After both the daytime and evening editions of Family Feud were cancelled in 1985, the show was given a reboot in 1988—and after host Ray Combs was fired in response to falling ratings, Dawson was brought back to host its final season in 1995. When the show was brought back yet again in 1999, Dawson declined a request to make a special appearance to commemorate the event, apparently having decided that his work was done and he could afford to rest on his laurels. But he returned to hosting (of a sort) one last time in 1987, playing the villainous overseer of the dystopian game show in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Running Man, and using Dawson's well-established likability to great satirical effect.