Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Life and Times of Richard Dawson

Richard Dawson is best known as the witty, wisecracking host of Family Feud and for his role as a British corporal in Hogan's Heroes.  Tom Shales of The Washington Post once described Richard as "the fastest, brightest and most beguiling interlocutor since the late great Groucho Marx bantered and parried on You Bet Your Life..  During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Family Feud was so popular that there was a daytime and syndicated prime time edition of the show, both hosted by Richard Dawson.

However, there was a more controversial side to the brash game show host.  In a 2016 Yahoo News article about Family Feud, Kristen Baldwin wrote, "And then there was the original host Richard Dawson, who had no qualms about fondling, grabbing, and kissing any female contestant who caught his eye.  Yeah, people didn't start taking sexual harassment seriously until the mid-'80s."

Richard Dawson was born Colin Lionel Emm on November 20, 1932 in Gosport, Hamshire, England.  His father, Arthur Emm, a furniture mover, was born in the United States.  His mother, Josephine (Lindsay) Emm, was a native of England and she worked in a munitions factory during World War II.  Richard and his older brother, John Leslie "Jack" Emm, were evacuated as children to escape the wartime bombing in southern England's major port cities.

At 14, Richard left home, lied about his age and joined the British Merchant Navy.  He remained in the Merchant Marine for three years  While in the service, he earned some extra money by competing in shipboard boxing matches.  After his discharge at the age if 17, Richard travelled the globe aboard a Cunard passenger liner.  When he returned to England, he launched a career as a stand-up comedian, performing in the clubs of London's West End.  In those days, he billed himself as "Dickie Dawson."  He later changed his moniker to "Richard Dawson," a name he would adopt legally.

By the mid-1950s, Dawson was playing London's famed Paladium Theatre.  His eventual goal was to make a name for himself in the United States.  In the early 1960s, he began to establish himself on American television, appearing on comedy and variety programs such as The Jack Benny Progam and The Dick Van Dyke Show

Richard appeared in a January 8, 1963 episode of The Jack Benny Program as an annoyed Englishman sitting beside Jack in the audience.  He then guest-starred in a 1963 episode of the Van Dyke show entitled "Racy Tracy Rattigan" (Season 2, Episode 27,  Air Date: April 3, 1963).  In the episode, Richard portrayed "Racy Tracy" Rattigan, an English music hall comic who is hired as a substitute host for Alan Brady during Brady's summer vacation.  "Racy Tracy" lives up to his nickname by flirting with every woman in sight, including Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore), the wife of Alan Brady's head writer, Rob Petrie, (Dick Van Dyke).

According to the Internet Movie Database (, here's how Richard Dawson related the story of his audition for the "Racy Tracy" role: Producer Sheldon Leonard asked him how he would make an entrance as this character.  Dawson replied, "Oh hello luvvies," using an upper-class British accent.  Leonard immediately handed him the job.

Richard as "Racy Tracy" on Dick Van Dyke Show

From 1965 to 1971, Richard played British Corporal Peter Newkirk in all 168 episodes of Hogan's Heroes, starring Bob Crane.  Hogan's Heroes was a hit CBS comedy series about a World War II prison-of-war-camp run by a group of bumbling Nazis. Richard's  performance as a military prisoner in the 1965 war film King Rat helped him win the role of Corporal Newkirk of the Royal Air Force. Newkirk, a Cockney, was a skilled tailor who altered uniforms, civilian clothes and other disguises when required for missions or to aid prisoners in escaping.  Newark was also a con man.  He was an expert safecracker and lock picker, a master at picking pockets and a card shark.  His proficiency in those areas was useful in outwitting the Nazis.

Richard as Corporal Peter Newkirk

With the success of Hogan's Heroes, Richard Dawson had achieved stardom on American television., but the show was abruptly cancelled in 1971.  After its cancellation, Richard Dawson became a regular performer on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.  After the 1970-71 season of Laugh-In, Arte Johnson and Henry Gibson left the show.  They were replaced by Richard and another former Hogan's Heroes star, Larry Hovis, both of whom had already made previous sporadic appearances on the show.  Dawson remained with Laugh-In until it ended in 1973.

From 1973 to 1974, Richard played the role of Richard Richardson on seven episodes of The New Dick Van Dyke Show, starring Van Dyke and Hope Lange as a married couple who have comic misadventures while raising their teenage daughter.  The series was created by Carl Reiner, the creator of the original Dick Van Dyke Show.  

During the 1970s, Richard made guest appearances on such TV series as McMillan & Wife (1975), The Love Boat (1978) and Angie (1979).  It was in 1976, however, that he made the biggest breakthrough of his career.  Richard Dawson will always be remembered best as the host of the popular television game show Family Feud, which debuted on ABC on July 12, 1976.  Richard was the original host of the show during its first run, from 1976 until 1985.  On Family Feud, two families competed to guess the most popular response to survey questions.  Richard's catchphrase was "survey says."  He wore three-piece suits with a flower on his lapel.

When Richard began hosting Family Feud, he was well recognized because he had been a frequent panelist on Match Game since 1973 (He continued to be a panelist on Match Game until 1978).  Family Feud  viewers enjoyed Richard's flippant sense of humour, but it was his unconventional way of greeting female contestants that attracted attention.  Within the first few weeks of Family Feud, he began kissing female contestants on the cheeks, hands and lips.  It all started when a woman was so anxious that she was unable to name a green vegetable.

In his 2010 interview with the Archive of American Television, Richard described the incident from his perspective: "I said, 'I'm gonna do something that my mom would do to me whenever I had a problem of any kind . . . and I kissed her on the cheek, and I said, 'That's for luck.'  And she said 'Asparagus' . . . They went on to win."

Richard's penchant for kissing women did not meet with everyone's approval and his flirtatious touchy-feely behaviour seems out of place in the Me Too era.  Television executives back then tried to convince him to put an end to all that kissing and touching.  According to Richard in his Archive of American Television interview, the executives claimed that advertisers frowned upon such behaviour.  He was told that sponsors did not approve of randomly kissing women without regard to their consent or the marital status.  It was unsightly and ill-mannered, they contended.  In his interview, however, Richard hinted that their opposition may have had something to do with him kissing non-white woman.  He stated, "It's very important to me that on Family Feud I could kiss all people . . . I kissed black women daily and nightly on Family Feud for 11 years and the world didn't come to an end, did it?"

Richard apparently asked viewers to write in with their opinion on the kissing issue.  According to the book Hogan's Heroes: The Unofficial Companion, by Brenda Scott Royce, the majority favoured kissing (14,000 to 704).  Royce's book also claims that contestants filled out a questionnaire before each game and they were asked, "Do you mind if Richard Dawson greets you with a kiss?"

In 1988, Family Feud was revived by CBS.  The new version was hosted by Ray Combs.  Two months later, a new nighttime syndicated version of the show was launched, also hosted by Combs. CBS cancelled the daytime version in early 1993, but Combs continued to host the prime time edition.  In September of 1994, Richard Dawson returned to the syndicated version, replacing Combs, who had been fired because the shows ratings had plummeted.  Dawson completed the final season of the show's second run. 

During the 1994-1995 revival of Family Feud, Richard did not kiss female contestants, due to a promise he had made to his daughter, Shannon.  He made it clear to the very first female contestant that that there would be no more of his signature greeting.  He declared, "I can't kiss any of the ladies because I promised my daughter I would only kiss Mom."

Although Family Feud's ratings initially improved upon Richard return, those higher rating could not be sustained.  As a result, the final episode was aired on May 25, 1995.  Family Feud went out of production for the next four years.  In 1999, Richard was asked to appear on the current version of The Feud, but declined.the offer.

Richard Dawson was married twice.  His first wife was English film actress Diana Dors.  In the 1950s, Diana was billed as a "blonde bombshell," Britain's answer to Marilyn Monroe. She was the queen of B-movies and the second highest paid actress in the United Kingdom after Vivien Leigh.
Richard met her through actor Victor Mature's stuntman.  They wed on April 12, 1959 while in New York for an appearance on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show.  The ceremony took place in singer Fran Warren's apartment and was attended by friends such as Allen.

Richard and Diana soon after their wedding

Richard and Diana had two sons: Mark Dawson (born in London, England on February 4, 1960) and Gary Dawson (born in Los Angeles on June 27, 1962).  In 1958,  RKO studios had cancelled her contract due to her offscreen exploits.  Diana never really caught on in the United States and Americans dismissed her as talentless blonde, trying to cash in by jumping on the Monroe bandwagon.  During her marriage to Dawson, she spent much of her time performing in low-brow cabarets and British working-class clubs. 

In 1967, Diana walked out on Richard.  The couple divorced and Richard obtained custody of both sons.  In 1968, Diana married British actor Alan Lake, an actor nine years her junior, who was battling alcoholism.

In 1977, Richard told People magazine that he "went into a 14-month funk" after Diana left.  "I absolutely wallowed in self pity.  People looked down their noses at Diana for leaving me with two young boys," he said.  "But it was an act of sheer kindness.  I don't know what would have happened to me without them."

Richard met his second wife, Gretchen Johnson (born September 22 1955), when she and her family were  contestants on Family Feud in 1981.  In his interview with the Archive of American Television, Richard discussed meeting Gretchen on the show.  "I knew there was just something special about this young lady and myself," he stated.  He later asked for permission to call her.  They married in 1991.   Their daughter, Shannon Nicole Dawson, was born in 1990.

Richard and Gretchen on Family Feud

Richard Dawson died on June 2, 2012 of complications from esophageal cancer at the age of 79.  He passed away at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical in Los Angeles, California.  He was survived by his wife, Gretchen, three children, and four grandchildren.


* On June 7, 1978, Richard Dawson hosted the Daytime Emmy Awards and he also won the award for best game show host for Family Feud.

* Richard once broke out into an almost uncontrollable fit of laughter after asking a female contestant on Family Feud, "During which month of pregnancy does a woman start to look pregnant?"  Her response was "September."

* Richard was a heavy smoker for most of his life.

* Richard was a self-described bleeding-heart liberal who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.

* Richard played himself  as host of Family Feud in a 1973 episode of Angie entitled "Family Feud" (Season 2, Episode 9, Air Date (November 20, 1979).  He also portrayed himself as host of Family Feud in a 1983 episode of Mama's Family, starring Vicki Lawrence of The Carol Burnett Show.  The episode is entitled "Family Feud" (Season 1, Episode 5, Air Date: February 19, 1983).

* Richard's first wife, Diana Dors, died in Windsor, Berkshire, England on May 4, 1984, after a recurrence of ovarian cancer.  She was 52 years old at the time of her death.  On October 10, 1984, Alan Lake, Diana's third husband, committed suicide.  He was 43 years old.

* Richard Dawson became a U.S. citizen in 1984 and showed off his passport during the introduction to a Family Feud episode.

* Richard was a frequent guest host for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and he filled in for Johnny several times in 1979 and 1980.

* Comedian Bill Murray did a satirical parody of Richard on Saturday Night Live in which the Family Feud host was portrayed as leering, nasty character who even slapped a contestant (John Belushi) for getting too fresh.

* Richard parodied his own image in the 1987 dystopian film The Running Man, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.  In the film, he portrayed Damon Killian, the host of a deadly TV show. set in a totalitarian future.

* Richard resided in Beverly Hills, California until his death.

Below is a photo of Richard Dawson during his Archive of American Television interview.  The interview was conducted in Beverly Hills California on December 1, 2010.

SOURCES:  People, "Richard Dawson Lost His Own Family Feud with Diana Dors, but His Show Is Hot Comfort,"  by Sue Reilly, Novermber 21, 1977; People, "Her Days as a Sexpot Done, Diana Dors Now Hopes to Become the Next Big Fitness Guru," by Roger Wolmuch, December 12, 1983; People, "Top of His Game, by Mark Goodman, November 14, 1994;, "Former 'Family Feud' host Richard Dawson dies;" by CNN Wire Staff, 2012; Good Housekeeping, "Here's why Richard Dawson Started Kissing Female Contestants on 'Family Feud,'" by the editors of Good Housekeeping, September 22, 2017; Yahoo News; All Hail 'Family Feud" Host Richard Dawson, Pioneering Game Show Perv, by Kristen Baldwin, September 23, 2016; Archive of American Television interview with Richard Dawson, December 1, 1910; Wikipedia; Internet Movie Database (

- Joanne

No comments:

Post a Comment