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Richard Dawson, R.I.P.

The "word" on Richard Dawson, who has died at the age of 79, is that he set out to be Peter Sellers or Jack Lemmon and was frustrated that he wound up being Bill Cullen. He first came to this country as a comic actor — a pretty good one as evidenced by a guest-starring spot on The Dick Van Dyke Show, regular stints on Hogan's Heroes and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and other gigs, some of them even dramatic ones. Along the way, he started picking up extra bucks doing game shows as a panelist and occasional host. He was so good on the panel of Match Game that it makers, Goodson-Todman, gave him the job of hosting a new show they invented called Family Feud. This was reportedly after their first choice, Geoff Edwards, passed on it to his presumed regret. The show was a monster hit and before long, all else Dawson had done was forgotten and he was a Game Show Host. Even his one big job in a movie — The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger — cast him as a Game Show Host.

I'm sure he appreciated the money but it's easy to believe, as rumor had it, that he felt he was using about 25% of what he had to offer. At one point, he got some bad press because TV Guide wanted to do a cover with the top quizzzmasters (as Lou Grant would say) all posing together and he refused to participate. It came across like he thought he was above Bob Barker and Alex Trebek and the others and too good to be grouped in with them.

I had one brief (very brief) encounter with Mr. Dawson around 1983. I was working on a show that was taping at ABC's old studio at Prospect and Talmadge. Family Feud was taping one episode after another in rapid succession across the hall and we shared a common corridor.

It was apparently Dawson's custom to do a formal "goodbye" with each family when their time on the show was over. By the rules of conduct, he was not allowed to have much contact with contestants before the game was played but after, he'd pose for photos, sign autographs and talk to them like a human being, not a Game Show Host. There was a family that had lost big and some of its members were taking it hard, not so much because of the money they hadn't won but because they thought they'd just plain looked stupid. Taping was to commence on the following episode without them and the Stage Manager was diplomatically hustling Dawson, who had changed into a different suit, to get out into position to be introduced so they could start.

Dawson instead was standing in the hallway with the departing family, taking a surprising interest in seeing that they left there feeling good about their appearance and themselves. The Stage Manager kept saying "Richard, they're ready for you" and Richard would say "They can wait" and resume telling the family members that it was just a game, that all games have losers and there's no disgrace in losing on something as inconsequential as Family Feud. I was running back and forth past them putting out some fire on the program I was doing but I caught snatches of what he was saying and it seemed like compassionate, pragmatic advice. It also sounded like it was helpful in its goal, which was to get those people to view their brief moments on Family Feud not as a low point in their lives and not even as a high point but as an event of little consequence.

A young woman who was in tears began hugging him like he'd just saved her child's life. Then she suddenly realized she had moistened the exquisite suit he was wearing and she practically shrieked in horror at what she'd done. He took her in his arms, allowed her to cry some more on his jacket and said in a calming voice, "Don't worry about it. Do you have any idea how many of these suits I have here?"

All this time, I was navigating around them in the corridor and as he hugged this young woman and I walked past, he said to me, "Pretend you didn't see this." I said, "I'll tell people it was Gene Rayburn." He said, "Thank you." Then he added, "And Gene will appreciate it, too."

Finally, the family was calmed and they left. The Stage Manager told Dawson, "We're twenty behind," which is a lot to be behind when you're taping that many shows per day. Dawson said, "Well, we're going to be farther behind because I have to go change my suit." But before he did, he made a point of coming over to me and apologizing for the traffic jam in the hallway. He didn't know who I was or what I was doing in the other studio but he said, "I hope we didn't cause you any problems." I muttered something about how if he promised not to kiss me, we'd call it even and he so promised and hurried off to change his outfit.

I later heard stories of Richard Dawson not being the nicest person to the crew, to other performers and especially to fans who recognized him in public. I have no idea if they were true or not. I've heard such stories about stars and known for sure they weren't true…and also heard gossip that was, if anything, understated. But he sure went way beyond the call of duty with that family that afternoon and he didn't have to come over and apologize to me, either. I'm going to choose to believe he was always like that and I hope you'll join me.