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Richard Dawson, host of TV’s ‘Family Feud,’ dies at 79

By Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — Richard Dawson, the British actor who went from comedy co-star in the popular TV series “Hogan’s Heroes” to his best-known role as the charming host of the TV game show “Family Feud” with his trademark of kissing the female contestants on the lips, has died. He was 79.

Dawson died Saturday at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center from complications related to esophageal cancer. The actor, who had been living in Beverly Hills, was diagnosed with the disease about three weeks ago, said his son Gary.

“The way he was on the game show was the way he was in real life,” Gary Dawson said Sunday. “He was always rooting for people — he not only wanted people to win, but to have a comfortable, great experience.”

Dawson’s easy-going style topped with a Cockney accent were evident in his early films in the 1960s such as “King Rat,” “Munster Go Home” and “The Devil’s Brigade,” while his quick wit distinguished him both as a game show contestant in the 1970s on “Match Game” and “I’ve Got A Secret,” and as a performer on “The New Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” where he was a regular cast member for two years.

The actor gained much of his popularity with American audiences from “Hogan’s Heroes,” the CBS series about a World War II prisoner-of-war camp that ran from 1965 to 1971. Dawson played Cpl. Peter Newkirk, an expert safecracker who was also adept at picking pockets.

The series was a big hit. “ ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ lasted longer than the war,” Dawson said in a 2009 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

But it was as the original host of “Family Feud,” the game show that pits two families against each other in a trivia quiz, that Dawson made his biggest impression. Displaying a smooth and upbeat demeanor, Dawson hosted the ABC daytime version and the first syndicated version from 1976 to 1985. He won a Daytime Emmy Award for his performance in 1978.

Dawson’s key gimmick on “Family Feud” was something that had never been done by a game-show host, and is seldom seen today — he kissed all the women players on the lips.

His son said the tradition started almost by accident; “There was a girl on the show who was very nervous, and my dad was trying to calm her down. So he said he would give her a kiss for luck, and he did. Then when he went to the next female player, she said, ‘Well, don’t I get a kiss?’ That’s how it started and it just became this thing.”

The kissing also sparked complaints from viewers who said that Dawson was getting a bit too familiar. He finally asked viewers to write in and tell him whether he should discontinue the kissing. “The mail flowed in, and it was overwhelmingly positive that he keep kissing the women,” said Gary Dawson.

Dawson later parodied his game-show image in “The Running Man,” a 1987 action movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger about a game show in which contestants are forced to fight for their lives. Dawson played Damon Killian, the show’s Machiavellian host and creator, and rewrote almost all of his lines in the script.

Wrote film critic Michael Wilmington in a review of “The Running Man”: “Dawson makes … a great, howling caricature of vanity and duplicity — and he dominates both show and movie, unctuously strutting, preening, smirking and roaring at the TV studio crowd.”

Dawson was born Nov. 20, 1932, in Gosport, England, and joined the merchant marine as a teenager. He began his career as a standup comic in London clubs.

He is survived by his wife, Gretchen, whom he met when she was a contestant on “Family Feud”; their daughter, Shannon; his sons Mark and Gary from his first marriage to actress Diana Dors that ended in divorce; and four grandchildren.

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