Affable talk-show host held sway for 21 years

Mike Douglas 1925-2006

August 12, 2006|By MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE

Long before daytime television was filled with estranged spouses hurling insults in mock courtrooms, pop doctors handing out sex advice and shock shows with topics like "My girlfriend is a transvestite and I didn't even know it!" millions of people tuned into The Mike Douglas Show.

There they were entertained by Mike Douglas, an easygoing former big-band crooner who for 90 minutes every weekday deftly mixed song and dance, helpful hints and a surprising dose of current events -- all with a patina of civility that has all but disappeared from television.

Douglas, whose syndicated talk show ran from 1961 to 1982 on as many as 230 stations nationwide, died yesterday in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., on his 81st birthday. His wife of 61 years, Genevieve Douglas, said he was admitted to a hospital Thursday.

She wasn't sure of the cause of death, but said he was being treated for recent dehydration stemming from the pursuit of his favorite pastime: golf.

In an interview in December 1999, Douglas reflected on the state of the modern syndicated daytime TV talk show, a genre he perhaps invented more than four decades ago in a tiny studio at KYW in Cleveland.

"Most of these people, especially [Jerry] Springer, are making huge salaries by humiliating people," he said. "I know television is a tough business, and it's tough to get ratings, but I'm appalled at how low some of these talk-show hosts today will stoop.

"I once had an opportunity to talk to Jerry Springer. We were on the same plane. I couldn't bring myself to walk up to him and shake his hand."

The Mike Douglas Show was more a respite from the day-to-day hassles faced by his audience, which was overwhelmingly stay-at-home moms. Every week Douglas had a different co-host who would join him in performing songs or having discussions with a wide variety of guests.

Critics today might deride what Douglas did as pabulum from a simpler time when audiences didn't want to be challenged.

But consider some of the people who appeared on The Mike Douglas Show:

Malcolm X, Bella Abzug, Stokely Carmichael, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Abbie Hoffman, Ralph Nader, George Wallace, Woodward and Bernstein, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan -- and even a diminutive golfing tyke named Tiger Woods.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono once co-hosted the show and served as a buffer between Douglas and war protester Jerry Rubin, who persistently needled Douglas.

"We made it a point from the beginning that we weren't going to talk down to the audience, which at that time was primarily women," Douglas said.

Born Michael Delaney Dowd in Chicago on Aug. 11, 1925, Douglas sang as a teenager in supper clubs and on radio programs. After serving in the Navy in World War II, he became a featured performer on Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge, which is where he adopted his stage name.

Shoved from the musical spotlight when America turned to rock 'n' roll in the late 1950s, Douglas marketed himself as a daytime TV host, first briefly on WGN in Chicago and then on KYW in Cleveland.

Westinghouse Group W Broadcasting, which owned KYW as well as a string of TV stations nationwide, began syndicating The Mike Douglas Show and in 1965 moved it to Philadelphia, where Douglas could better attract celebrity guests and co-hosts passing through New York.

How big was Douglas?

One of the funniest lines in Eddie Murphy's remake of The Nutty Professor -- a 1996 film released more than a decade after Douglas' last show -- is about Douglas as a sex symbol.

And how's this for pop immortality: When Elvis Presley infamously shot the TV in his room at the Las Vegas Hilton, he was watching The Mike Douglas Show. Presley later apologized to Douglas and said he wasn't aiming at Douglas -- the King just couldn't stand co-host Robert Goulet.

Douglas even managed to break into the rock 'n' roll Top 40 charts with his sentimental ditty "The Men in My Little Girl's Life," which peaked at No. 6 in 1965.

His TV run began to wind down in 1980, when Group W, in pursuit of a younger audience, dropped Douglas in favor of singer John Davidson. Douglas responded by continuing to syndicate his show on his own until 1982.

Even in his memoir, I'll Be Right Back: Memories of TV's Greatest Talk Show Host, Douglas maintained the upbeat civility that marked his TV career.

"You want to hear complaints? You want to hear `get even' stories about the people that double-crossed me or let me down?" he wrote. "Read another book, my friend. The complaint window is closed."

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