LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Merv Griffin, the former talk-show host who became a Hollywood billionaire by investing in real estate and creating the popular game shows “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune,” died of prostate cancer early on Sunday, his family said. He was 82.
Griffin’s first success came from singing the 1950 novelty hit “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” and he spent 23 years hosting a talk show that bore his name. For years it was the most successful syndicated U.S. television program.
Griffin owned 17 hotels at his peak, according to Rolling Stone magazine, as well as casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and the Bahamas. “If it’s not broke, fix it anyway,” he once said.
His family announced the death in a statement, saying that the recurrence of prostate cancer, which he had beaten more than a decade ago, progressed swiftly and unexpectedly after a routine examination uncovered it earlier this year.
He went to the hospital in mid-July.
The entertainer’s list of friends included some of the most famous people in the world.
Former U.S. First Lady Nancy Reagan said she had known him for 50 years and had been comforted by him during President Ronald Reagan’s illness and death. “He was a dear, dear friend,” she said in a statement.
Friends and associates described Griffin as a savvy businessman whose good nature and charm masked a fierce determination and toughness.
“I’d rather play ”Jeopardy!“ than live it,” Griffin joked in a statement as he went to the hospital last month.
“We take solace in knowing that until the end he had his two favorites by his side -- his family and his work,” his son, Tony, said in the family statement.
Griffin’s fortune eventually reached an estimated $1 billion as he acquired luxury hotels and casinos and sold his television production company.
At one point Griffin’s talk show aired opposite Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” but it lost the ratings battle and was canceled after two years.
Griffin’s producer was Carson’s brother, Dick Carson, who summed up the difference between the two men by saying: “When John wakes up in the morning, he thinks about his monologue. Merv thinks about business.”
In “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune,” Griffin created two enduringly popular fixtures of U.S. television. Building on an interest in puzzles dating to childhood, he came up with the concept for “Jeopardy,” in which contestants are given an answer and have to provide the question, in the early 1960s.
Griffin also wrote the familiar “Jeopardy” music played while contestants pondered their final question. He said it took about 30 minutes to write the song and estimated it earned him more than $80 million in royalties.
“Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak said Griffin was hardly a stereotypical businessman.
“Merv knew everyone. When you were with him, you rubbed shoulders with the most exciting and famous people on the planet,” Sajak wrote on his Web site after Griffin’s death.
“The conversation in heaven has gotten a lot more lively.”
Griffin lived in a Beverly Hills mansion and a ranch near Palm Springs. He married radio comic Julann Wright in 1958 and they had a son, Anthony. The couple divorced in 1973.
Griffin is survived by Tony and daughter-in-law Tricia Griffin, as well as grandchildren Farah and Donovan Mervyn.