It shouldn’t be surprising that on-line chatter about the death of Richard Dawson is focusing on his career as the host of “Family Feud.” It became the number-one game show on television and provided Dawson with a daily visit into people’s living rooms. And this was after Dawson built up a large following on the new version of “The Match Game,” which became more of a party than a game-show.
But something always rankled me about the game-show Dawson. Viewers could sense his immediate disinterest in the Match Game after producers decided to bring in a “star wheel” because contestants virtually always picked Dawson to help them win the big money. The only thing he didn’t appear to do half-heartedly was pick up a pay cheque. And then he decided somewhere early in Feud’s run to start kissing all the female contestants, as if it were a requirement to be on the show. Dawson justified his bursts of ego and lip-locking on the show’s final broadcast after its first cancellation in the ‘80s.
While Dawson showed some great wit on game shows, I prefer to remember his breakout role on “Hogan’s Heroes.” The show would never get made today. Veterans groups and professional complainers would shout it off television before it ever got there. The concept seemed a bit dicey even in 1965; promos (written by Stan Freberg) just before it first aired played up the juxtaposition of comedy and the very unfunny reality of a prisoner-of-war camp. But the characterisations made the show work; even the main German characters weren’t all that evil and seemed reluctant participants in the war. And, of course, our side won in every episode.
Dawson’s fame, up to that time, was that of being Mr. Diana Dors, the former Diana Fluck who had been Britain’s highest-paid entertainer by standing around and looking blonde. He had his own family feud going. His wife filed for divorce January 16, 1964, charging that he threatened to “beat the hell” out of her and made her a virtual prisoner in her own home, as United Press International put it.
His P.R. people got cracking after Heroes went on the air and got him several wire service interviews in 1966. The first one is from March 5th:
‘Corporal’ Richard Dawson Shooting For Top In TV
By JOAN CROSBY
Newspaper Enterprise Assn.
NEW YORK—(NEA)—This is a comparatively exclusive story. Mainly because Richard Dawson hasn’t had any great number of requests for interviews.
"Well," Dawson deadpanned, "I did one press conference with eight other fellows around. We were interviewed by a nice cross-eyed, teen-age girl.
“And one other time I gave an interview to a fellow who came to my door, but he turned out to be delivering a package.”
Dawson, who says his sole purpose in life is to make people laugh (he succeeds admirably), plays Newkirk, the Cockney corporal in CBS-TV’s Hogan’s Heroes. He should be interviewed at least once a day. He’s got enough comedy material to supply every writer in the country.
“In 1961,” he said, “I did a nightly show in Los Angeles. It was 90 minutes long and called The Suing Hour. We papered three walls of the office with writs. We never rounded up an audience. We just kept all the process servers who showed up through the day.
“Then there was the time I got sued by one actress when I called her Loretta Old. Actually, the show was called The Mike Stokey Show but he just showed up to perspire and say ‘Hi, there.’ He even had that printed on an idiot card.”
Richard is a good-looking 32-year-old Briton who has discovered that he must comb his hair forward, the way he wears it on the show, and speak in Newkirk’s Cockney accent to be recognized.
"Fans tell me they love the show,” he said, “then they ask if I’m the producer, if my hair is combed like a reasonable guy of my age who is unemployed. So now I comb my hair forward and do three minutes of Cockney rubbish so they’ll know who I am.”
Dawson, who is married to Diana Dors (they have two young sons), originally was tested for the part of Hogan. But he agrees now that Bob Crane, who plays the role, “has brought much more” to it.
“See,” Dawson said, “I mention Bob Crane and I’ll bet he won’t mention me in an interview. I once asked Werner Klemperer about that and he told me, ‘We do mention you—they just never print it.’”
Dawson began his acting career in British repertory for $9 a week. “Then I read somewhere that comics can go on forever. So I told some of the top agents in England I was a Canadian comic vacationing in England, and I wouldn’t mind some work. They sent me a contract for six weeks work. I went out on the stage with a medley of popular jokes and died.”
There are no second thoughts about the choice of a show business career for Richard Dawson. “In a business where Troy Donahue can be billed above the title of a film I’ve got to wind up King,” he said.
This one appeared thanks to the National Enterprise Association, starting March 9th.
Teen-Age Girls Flooding Dawson With Mash Notes
By ERSKINE JOHNSON
HOLLYWOOD — Teen-age girls are screaming “Yah, yah, yah” when they spot Richard Dawson. They are also flooding Dawson with mash notes in which they compare him to David McCallum and Ringo Starr.
“It’s frightening when you are 31,” Dawson said on the set of Hogan’s Heroes in which he plays British Airman Newkirk with a Liverpool-style haircut and a Cockney accent.
But about being compared to McCallum and Ringo as a teenage heart throb, he says:
“I don’t know whether that’s better than being a last year’s Robert Vaughn or not. But I’m really not trying to be another Ringo or another anything.
“I had my hair cut this way for Sybil Burton’s wedding. I was a bridesmaid,” he kidded.
"Seriously, we deliberately switched Newkirk’s accent from Liverpool to Cockney to avoid comparison with the Beatles. Everybody seems to be from Liverpool these days. You know something, I do dialects and I don’t even understand some of those characters."
Comedian by Trade
Laughs are the reason for London-born Richard Dawson’s presence in the cast of Hogan’s Heroes. He is a comedian by trade who has worked in night clubs and made guest appearances on TV shows. But until Hogan’s Heroes came along this season, most people had never heard of Richard Dawson. Those who did thought of him as the husband of Diana Dors, the blonde British glamor queen.
Now some people in Hollywood say they are separated.
This he denies, saying Diana is just doing a play in London and that she will eventually return to the Dawson home and brood (two young sons) in Beverly Hills.
Part of Dawson’s night club act includes a big about Boris Karloff showing up on Madison Ave. with an idea for a Dr. Frankenstein series and being turned down “because we’ve had too many doctor series.”
Even funnier, though, is a story he tells about his first appearance on stage with a solo comedy act. Until then he had worked as a big player en the British stage, seldom earning more than $8.40 a week. AFTER deciding to become a comedian, he wrote a letter to a theater manager saying he was a Canadian comic on vacation in England and would like to perform.
When his offer was accepted he memorized a few jokes and went to the theater where they asked him if he wanted a rising mike.
“I said I did, although I didn’t know what they were talking about. When I got on stage and the mike rose out of the floor, I didn’t even see it. All I knew was that something was climbing up inside my pants leg and by the time it reached my knee, I was really fighting the thing. The audience though it was part of the act, but the manager knew better. He fired me after one performance.”
And this one is from July 1st.
Dawson Enjoys A New Identity
By VERNON SCOTT
UPI Hollywood Correspondent
HOLLYWOOD (UPI) — Richard Dawson, one of the comic prisoners in “Hogan’s Heroes,” enjoys considerably better company offscreen at home with his wife—who happens to be Diana Dors.
Fittingly enough, Dawson plays the English sergeant in the CBS situation comedy. He was born on the south coast of England and came to Hollywood in 1962. His British accent is for real and so is his devotion to the good life.
He and the blonde Diana have been married since 1958. They have two sons, Mark, 6, and Gary, 4.
“Mark’s an Englishman, born in London,” Dawson points out, “but Gary’s a Yank.”
The Dawsons bought Julie Bishop’s Beverly Hills home five years ago. It’s a ranch style house with a 60 x 25-foot living room with great expanses of glass overlooking more than an acre of manicured grounds.
There are five bedrooms, one of which has been converted by Dick into an antique poolroom with an ancient pool table he acquired from actor Tommy Noonan. Dawson spends many an hour shooting pool but not, he vows, hustling his friends.
Diana has decorated the home with modern, comfortable furniture but nothing fancy.
“You can’t keep things ship-shape with two young sons scampering about with a 140-pound Great Dane,” Dawson grins. “That dog — we call him Taurus because he looks like a bull — gets me up every morning at quarter to five to go for a walk.
“He’s very gentle, but sometimes I suspect he buries human beings in the yard.”
Dawson’s brisk 15-minute walk with Taurus sets him up for a day that begins at 7 a.m. at Desilu studios and seldom finds him home before 7 in the evening.
The children are tended by an English nanny who was Dawson’s housekeeper in Blighty during the actor’s bachelor days. They also have a lady who comes in to clean every day, another woman comes in to cook whenever the Dawsons entertain.
This same domestic arrives every afternoon at 3 p.m. to prepare dinner because Diana refuses to cook.
“I’m a good cook,” Dawson boasts. “I was away from home in the merchant marine at 14.
I worked as a waiter, and after opening a thousand cans of beans you begin to take an interest in the culinary arts in self defense. As a waiter I made friends with the chefs and learned some of their tricks.”
The sea still holds an interest for the easy-going Englishman who owns a 24-foot cabin cruiser anchored at Marina del Rey, a half-hour drive from the house by English sports car.
Dawson does some fishing from the boat, but his principal hobby is taking 16 mm. movies of the children, usually built around a little story of his own devising. For Mark’s last birthday the entire cast of “Hogan’s Heroes” appeared to take part.
The family pool is spacious and Dawson manages a swim six days a week in foul weather
and fair. Both boys have been swimming since they were six months old.
Because Dawson bad a bit of a rough go as a youngster, inheriting his clothes from an older brother, he has become something of a dandy now that he can afford a wardrobe.
“I’m very extravagant about clothes,” he admits cheerfully. “I pay about $250 for my suits and I have dozens of them and sports jackets and slacks as well. But I've been building my wardrobe over the years.”
Dawson, who appeared in character roles in movies and television before “Hogan’s Heroes,” is delighted with the show’s success — especially since he is being recognized on his own now and no longer identified as Diana Dors’ husband.
He wasn’t Mr. Dors for much longer. She dumped him and her kids and headed back to England where she remarried in 1968. She died, still being compared to Marilyn Monroe, and not for any acting ability. Their life was dramatised in a British mini-series, “The Blonde Bombshell” (1998)
Dawson, meanwhile, carved himself a little niche in daytime TV history. Fans ignored his self-professed arrogance and played along with a simple game that blended instant thought, suspense and curiosity (about how well the viewer guessed the right answer). And comic stupidity if you were lucky. If 100 people were surveyed about the best game-show hosts of the 1970s, Richard Dawson’s name would have to be in the top answers.