Laughs and kisses end for ‘Feud’ host Dawson

Richard Dawson, foreground, is in his familiar role as host of “Family Feud” when the casts of ABC’s comedy series “Eight is Enough,” “The Love Boat,” “Soap” and “Three’s Company” compete to benefit charity in 1978. Dawson, the wisecracking British entertainer, died Saturday. He was 79. Enlarge photo

Associated Press file photo

Richard Dawson, foreground, is in his familiar role as host of “Family Feud” when the casts of ABC’s comedy series “Eight is Enough,” “The Love Boat,” “Soap” and “Three’s Company” compete to benefit charity in 1978. Dawson, the wisecracking British entertainer, died Saturday. He was 79.

NEW YORK – Richard Dawson brought a saucy, unabashedly touchy-feely style to TV game shows as host of “Family Feud.”

The British-born entertainer, who died Saturday at age 79 from complications related to esophageal cancer at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, earlier had made his mark in the unlikely 1960s sitcom hit “Hogan’s Heroes,” which mined laughs from a Nazi POW camp whose prisoners hoodwink their captors and run the place themselves.

But it is as the kissing, wisecracking quizmaster of “Feud” that he will be remembered.

The show, which initially ran from 1976 to 1985, pitted a pair of families against each other as they tried to guess the most popular answers to poll questions such as “What do people give up when they go on a diet?”

Dawson made his hearty, soaring pronouncement of the phrase “Survey says ...” a national catchphrase among the show’s fans.

He 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 Bet Your Life.’” The show was so popular it was released as both daytime and syndicated evening versions.

And it was quickly validated by “Saturday Night Live,” with Bill Murray in a satirical homage to Dawson as a leering, nasty figure who even slapped one contestant (John Belushi) for getting too fresh.

Not that everyone approved.

In his classic 1981 cultural analysis Within the Context of No Context, George W.S. Trow identified “the important moment in the history of television” as the moment when Dawson asked his contestants “to guess what a poll of 100 people had guessed would be the height of the average American woman.

“Guess what they’ve guessed,” sniffed Trow, harping on the meaninglessness of such an enterprise. “Guess what they’ve guessed the average is.”

Obviously, “Feud” fans would have feuded with Trow’s dismissive attitude.

For one thing, Dawson played the show, and his duties presiding over it, for laughs.

On one episode, he posed this question to a contestant: “During what month of pregnancy does a woman begin to look pregnant?”

She blurted out “September,” then, too late, realized this was a ridiculous response.

All the better for Dawson, who couldn’t stop laughing – or milking the moment for continued laughs from the audience.

His swaggering, randy manner (and working-bloke’s British accent) set him apart from other TV quizmasters, who, more often than not, tempered any boisterous inclinations with defiant smoothness. Not Dawson, who was overtly physical, prone to invading his contestants’ personal space – and especially the women, each of whom he kissed without exception.

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, an attractive young contestant who came on with members of her family in 1981. She and Dawson began dating, and, after a decade together, they wed in 1991. (Dawson is survived by Gretchen and their daughter Shannon, as well as two sons, Mark and Gary, from his first marriage, and four grandchildren.)