NEW YORK — Richard Dawson brought a saucy, unabashedly touchy-feely style to TV game shows as host of “Family Feud.”
The British-born entertainer, who died Saturday at age 79 from complications related to esophageal cancer at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, earlier had made his mark in the unlikely 1960s sitcom hit “Hogan’s Heroes,” which mined laughs from a Nazi POW camp whose prisoners hoodwink their captors and run the place.
But it is as the kissing, wisecracking quizmaster of “Feud” that he will be remembered.
The show, which ran from 1976 to 1985, pitted a pair of families against each other as they tried to guess the most popular answers to poll questions such as “What do people give up when they go on a diet?”
Dawson made his hearty, soaring pronouncement of the phrase “Survey says...” a national catchphrase among the show’s fans.
He won a daytime Emmy Award in 1978 as best game show host. Tom Shales of The Washington Post called him “the fastest, brightest and most beguilingly caustic interlocutor since the late great Groucho bantered and parried on ‘You Bet Your Life.’ ”
The show was so popular it was released as both daytime and syndicated evening versions.
And it was quickly validated by “Saturday Night Live,” with Bill Murray in a satirical homage to Dawson as a leering, nasty figure who even slapped one contestant (John Belushi) for getting too fresh.
His swaggering, randy manner (and working-bloke’s British accent) set him apart from other TV quizmasters, who, more often than not, tempered any boisterous inclinations with defiant smoothness.
Not Dawson, who was overtly physical, prone to invading his contestants’ personal space — and especially the women, each of whom he kissed without exception.
At the time the show bowed out in 1985, executive producer Howard Felsher estimated that Dawson had kissed “somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000.”
Dawson reprised his game show character in a much darker mood in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger film “The Running Man.”
But long before “Feud,” Dawson had gained fame as the fast-talking Cpl. Peter Newkirk on “Hogan’s Heroes,” the CBS comedy starring Bob Crane set in World War II.
The show made the ratings top 10 in its first season, 1965-66, and aired until 1971.
“We ran six years,” Dawson once quipped, “a year longer than Hitler.”
Dawson was born Colin Lionel Emm in 1932 in Gosport, England. When he was 14 he joined the Merchant Marines, serving three years.
He first got into show business as a standup comedian, playing clubs in London’s West End including the legendary Stork Room.
It was there, in the late 1950s, he met blond bombshell Diana Dors, the film star who became known as Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe. They married in 1959 and divorced a decade later.
Dawson landed roles in U.S. comedy and variety shows in the early 1960s, including “The Steve Allen Show” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Then his performance as a military prisoner in the 1965 film “King Rat” led to his being cast in “Hogan’s Heroes,” which truly made him a star to American audiences.
After that, he was a regular on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and “The New Dick Van Dyke Show.”
Meanwhile, he became a frequent celebrity contestant on game shows, including both daytime and prime-time versions of “The Match Game.”
While still a panelist on “The Match Game,” he began on “Family Feud,” where his popularity grew to such levels that he was mentioned as a front-runner to win the “Tonight Show” host chair as successor to Johnny Carson, who at the time was considering retirement. Though Carson stayed put, Dawson logged appearances as a guest host.
In 1985, on Dawson ended that lengthy “Family Feud” run, the studio audience honored him with a standing ovation, and he responded: “Please sit down. I have to do at least 30 minutes of fun and laughter, and you make me want to cry.”
“I’ve had the most incredible luck in my career,” he told his viewers, adding, “I never dreamed I would have a job in which so many people could touch me and I could touch them.” That triggered a laugh, as he must have known it would: a host who was both a lover and a jokester.