Chuck Barris, ‘King of Daytime TV’ who claimed to be CIA assassin, dead at 87
Chuck Barris hosted "The Gong Show." NBC photo
(NBC News) - Chuck Barris, whose game show empire included "The Dating Game," ''The Newlywed Game" and that infamous factory of cheese, "The Gong Show," died at 87.
Barris died of natural causes Tuesday afternoon at his home in Palisades, New York, according to publicist Paul Shefrin.
Decades before shows such as "American Idol" and "America's Got Talent" came along, Barris put everyday people who did not mind exposing their vulnerabilities or answering embarrassing questions before the cameras.
He made game show history right off the bat, in 1966, with "The Dating Game," hosted by Jim Lange. The gimmick: a young female questions three males, hidden from her view, to determine which would be the best date. Sometimes the process was switched, with a male questioning three females. But in all cases the questions were designed by the show's writers to elicit sexy answers.
Celebrities and future celebrities who appeared as contestants included Michael Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steve Martin and a pre-"Charlie's Angels" Farrah Fawcett, introduced as "an accomplished artist and sculptress" with a dream to open her own gallery.
After the show became a hit on both daytime and nighttime TV, the Barris machine accelerated. New products included "The Newlywed Game," ''The Parent Game," ''The Family Game" and even "The Game Game."
“Have you ever heard the CIA acknowledge someone was an assassin?”
At one point Barris was supplying the television networks with 27 hours of entertainment a week, mostly in five-days-a-week daytime game shows.
The grinning, curly-haired Barris became a familiar face as creator and host of "The Gong Show," which aired from 1976 to 1980.
Patterned after the Major Bowes Amateur Hour show that was a radio hit in the 1930s, the program featured performers who had peculiar talents and, often, no talent at all. When the latter appeared on the show, Barris would strike an oversize gong, the show's equivalent of vaudeville's hook. The victims would then be mercilessly berated by the manic Barris, with a hat often yanked down over his eyes and ears, and a crew of second-tier celebrities.
"When I started out I was trying to find good talent but all I found was bad talent ... so I said let's do a show with bad talent," Barris said in a 2009 interview with the NPR show "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me." "I always thought the people who did my shows, the contestants, were having the time of their lives."
Occasionally, someone would actually launch a successful career through the show. One example was the late country musician BoxCar Willie, who was a 1977 "Gong Show" winner.
Barris called himself "The King of Daytime Television," but to critics he was "The King of Schlock" or "The Baron of Bad Taste."
The media mocked him and accused him of exploiting his contestants.
"Let me ask you something — which does the most harm, a 'Gong Show' or the killings, pistol whippings and flying blood you see on evening 'drama?'" Barris once said in a Los Angeles Times interview. "And the critics blame me for cracking culture?"
As "The Gong Show" and Barris' other series were slipping, he sold his company for a reported $100 million in 1980 and decided to go into films.
Afterward, a distraught Barris checked into a New York hotel and wrote his autobiography, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," in two months. In it, he claimed to have been a CIA assassin.
The book (and the 2002 film based on it, directed by George Clooney) were widely dismissed by disbelievers who said the creator of some of television's most lowbrow game shows had allowed his imagination to run wild when he claimed to have spent his spare time traveling the world, quietly rubbing out enemies of the United States.
"It sounds like he has been standing too close to the gong all those years," quipped CIA spokesman Tom Crispell. "Chuck Barris has never been employed by the CIA and the allegation that he was a hired assassin is absurd," Crispell added.
Barris, who offered no corroboration of his claims, was unmoved.
"Have you ever heard the CIA acknowledge someone was an assassin?" he once asked.
Seeking escape from the Hollywood rat race, he moved to a villa in the south of France in the 1980s with his girlfriend and future second wife, Robin Altman, and made only infrequent returns to his old haunts over the next two decades.
Barris started in entertainment as a page at NBC headquarters in New York in the 1950s and eventually used forged recommendations to get into the network's management training program. He later found work at ABC, where he persuaded his bosses to let him open a Hollywood office, from which he launched his game-show empire.
He also had success in the music world. He wrote the 1962 hit record "Palisades Park," which was recorded by Freddy Cannon.
Barris's first marriage, to Lynn Levy, ended in divorce. Their daughter, Della, died of a drug overdose in 1998. He married his third wife, Mary, in 2000.