Bay Area-born pop culture icon dies at 82

Merv Griffin, the San Mateo native who went from big-band-era crooner to successful television host and game-show creator, died Sunday of prostate cancer. He was 82.

Griffin was born and raised in the city of San Mateo, where he launched a neighborhood newspaper, The Whispering Winds, when he was 7.

He graduated from San Mateo High School, and returned in 2006 for the opening of the high school’s new theater, which was named in his honor.

Although Griffin became one of the most popular and successful entertainers of the 20th century, he never forgot his roots, according to many locals who reflected on his life Sunday.

“I always look at San Mateo as a great place, and it gave him a great foundation,” said Supervisor Jerry Hill, a San Mateo resident. “He excelled in everything he touched, and he had a gift of entertaining people and making them smile.”

Griffin was initially diagnosed with prostate cancer in the 1990s, and was successfully treated for the disease more than 10 years ago, according to a family statement. He was recently hospitalized for a recurrence of the disease, which strikes one man in six and kills one in 35, according to the American CancerSociety.

“His death proves that this disease doesn’t respect any class status or occupation,” said state Assemblyman Gene Mullin, D-South San Francisco, who has publicized his own battle with prostate cancer in order to encourage men to seek regular screenings for the disease.

Griffin’s entertainment career arguably began at 4, when he began learning to play piano and performed recitals on the back porch of his family’s San Mateo home. Griffin left the University of San Francisco to work at San Francisco radio station KFRC, and then recorded a hit version of “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” which went on to sell 3 million copies.

By the numbers

» Born July 6, 1925, in San Mateo

» Began working for radio station KFRC in 1944

» Recorded “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” in 1950, which sold 3 million copies

» Launched “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1962

» Created first game show, “Word for Word,” in 1963

» Created “Jeopardy!” in 1964

» Created “Wheel of Fortune” in 1975

» Won 17 Emmys

– Source: Official biography from the Griffin Group

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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