NEW YORK — Richard Dawson, the wisecracking British entertainer who was among the schemers in the 1960s sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes” and a decade later began kissing thousands of female contestants as host of the game show “Family Feud” has died. He was 79.
Dawson, also known to TV fans as the Cockney POW Cpl. Peter Newkirk on “Hogan’s Heroes,” died Saturday night from complications related to esophageal cancer at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, his son Gary said.
The game show, which initially ran from 1976 to 1985, pitted families who tried to guess the most popular answers to poll questions such as “What do people give up when they go on a diet?
He made his hearty, soaring delivery of the phrase “Survey says...” a national catchphrase among viewers.
Dawson won a daytime Emmy Award in 1978 as best game show host. Tom Shales of The Washington Post called him “the fastest, brightest and most beguilingly caustic interlocutor since the late great Groucho bantered and parried on `You Be Your Life.”’ The show was so popular it was released as both daytime and syndicated evening versions.
His swaggering, randy style (and British accent) set him apart from other TV quizmasters. He was known for kissing each woman contestant, and at the time the show bowed out in 1985, executive producer Howard Felsher estimated that Dawson had kissed “somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000.”
“I kissed them for luck and love, that’s all,” Dawson said at the time.
One of them he kissed was Gretchen Johnson, a young contestant who appeared with members of her family in 1981. After a decade together, she and Dawson wed in 1991. They had a daughter, Shannon.
Dawson reprised his game show character in a much darker mood in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger film “The Running Man,” playing the host of a deadly TV show set in a totalitarian future, where convicts try to escape as their executioners stalk them. “Saturday Night Live” mocked him in the 1970s, with Bill Murray portraying him as leering and nasty, even slapping one contestant (John Belushi) for getting too fresh.
The British-born actor already had gained fame as the fast-talking Newkirk in “Hogan’s Heroes,” the CBS comedy that starred Bob Crane and mined laughs from a Nazi POW camp whose prisoners hoodwink their captors and run the place themselves.
Despite its unlikely premise, the show made the ratings top 10 in its first season, 1965-66, and ran until 1971.
“We ran six years,” Dawson once quipped, “a year longer than Hitler.”
Both “Hogan’s Heroes” and “Family Feud” have had a second life in recent years, the former on DVD reissues and the latter on GSN, formerly known as the Game Show Network.
On Dawson’s last “Family Feud” in 1985, the studio audience honored him with a standing ovation, and he responded: “Please sit down. I have to do at least 30 minutes of fun and laughter and you make me want to cry.”
“I’ve had the most incredible luck in my career,” he told viewers, adding, “I never dreamed I would have a job in which so many people could touch me and I could touch them.” That triggered an unexpected laugh.
Producers brought out “The New Family Feud,” starring comedian Ray Combs, in 1988. Six years later, Dawson replaced Combs at the helm, but that lasted only one season. Steve Harvey is the current host.
Dawson was born Colin Lionel Emm in 1932 in Gosport, England. When he was 14 he joined the Merchant Marines, serving three years.
He first got into show business as a stand-up comedian, playing clubs in London’s West End including the legendary Stork Room. It was there, in the late 1950s, he met blond bombshell Diana Dors, the film star who became known as Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe. They married in 1959 and divorced in the late 1960s.
Dawson landed roles in U.S. comedy and variety shows in the early 1960s, including “The Steve Allen Show” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Then his performance as a military prisoner in the 1965 film “King Rat” led to his being cast in “Hogan’s Heroes,” which truly made him a star to American audiences.
After that, he was a regular on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and “The New Dick Van Dyke Show.”
Meanwhile, he became a frequent celebrity contestant on game shows, which led to hosting jobs on both daytime and prime-time versions of “The Match Game.”
While still hosting “The Match Game,” he began on “Family Feud,” where his popularity grew to such levels that he was mentioned as a frontrunner to win the “Tonight Show” host chair to succeed Johnny Carson, who at the time was considering retirement. Though Carson stayed put, Dawson made appearances as a guest host.
Dawson is survived by his widow, Gretchen, their daughter Shannon, two sons, Mark and Gary, from his first marriage, and four grandchildren.
Associated Press writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report