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TV Host and Big Band Singer Mike Douglas


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TV Host and Big Band Singer Mike Douglas

by Tim Weiner

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Mike Douglas

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida -- Mike Douglas, the genial television host whose afternoon talk show was a beacon of popular culture in the 1960's and 70's, died Friday, August 11, in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. His death came on his birthday, a generation after his irony-free broadcast style began to pass from the screen. He was 81. His wife of 62 years, Genevieve, confirmed his death to The Associated Press.

Everyone from Richard Nixon to the Rolling Stones showed up on "The Mike Douglas Show." It had a run of more than two decades, beginning in 1961. At the height of its popularity, in the late 1960's, it was one of the most watched shows on television. About seven million people tuned in to the broadcast daily.

They saw the pianists Liberace and Little Richard, Malcolm X and Barbra Streisand, and the Catskills comedian Totie Fields going goggled-eyed at the Kabuki-masked rocker Gene Simmons of Kiss. It was Robert Frost one day, Richard Pryor the next. The 60's pop group the Turtles was seated next to Truman Capote. And next to them sat Douglas, smiling and silver-tongued.

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Sonny Bono, left, with ex-wife, Cher, (center), clown around

with Mike Douglas on 'The Mike Douglas Show' in 1979

The show provided a stage for Bill Cosby and Jay Leno when they were up-and-coming performers. It always featured musicians, reflecting Douglas' show business beginnings as a singer and they ranged from Frank Sinatra to John Lennon.

Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono were Douglas' guest hosts for one week in 1972, when viewers were treated to Douglas singing the Beatles tune, "With a Little Help From My Friends," interviews with radical leaders like Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party and Jerry Rubin of the Youth International Party, and Lennon playing his antiwar hymn, "Imagine."

The program also produced a pivotal moment in American political history: the creative mind behind the scenes at "The Mike Douglas Show" in the 1960's, the producer Roger Ailes, became a crucial media adviser to Nixon in his successful run for president in 1968 after meeting him on the show.

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Late Night Talk Show Kings Jay Leno (left) and David Letterman

(right) both launched their careers on 'The Mike Douglas Show'

Douglas went on to play a similar campaign role for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and is now chief executive of the Fox News Channel and chairman of Fox Television.

Douglas was not an interrogator like his television contemporary Mike Wallace, nor was he possessed of the cool of his late-night counterpart Johnny Carson. David Letterman, whose life as a daytime host was starting when Douglas' was winding down, became in many respects the antithesis of Douglas.

Douglas usually served his guests soft questions, exuding good vibrations. Yet, his program could make news. He offered Ralph Nader his first chance to question the safety of American automobiles on national television and he let political figures from the far ends of the spectrum as well as the middle have their say.

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Mixing music and politics, Mike Douglas (left) shares a laugh with

(L-R) Helen Reddy and California Governor Jerry Brown in 1979.

His success was also a foreshadowing of the future: in an era before cable television, Douglas was not a creature of the networks. His show was a syndicated production of the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company and sold to about 200 local stations.

It was the first syndicated television show to win an Emmy. Toward the end of his long run, Douglas was being paid $2 million a year, a salary probably exceeded on television at the time only by Carson.

At the height of his fame, Douglas said he was always thinking of how to make a housewife in Cedar Rapids, Michigan, happy. The secret of his success, he said, was simple: "I'm a square."

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Mike Douglas . . . images of the entertainment icon today and yesterday

Michael Delaney Dowd Jr. was born on August 11, 1925 (some sources suggest earlier dates in the 1920's) in Chicago, the son of a railway freight agent and a homemaker. He performed as a teenage crooner on a cruise ship that sailed the Great Lakes out of Chicago.

He moved to California after World War II and sang and recorded with the band of Kay Kyser, later appearing on "Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge," a televised musical quiz show. His was the lead voice on hits like "The Old Lamplighter" and "Ole Buttermilk Sky."

Douglas returned to Chicago as host of "Hi, Ladies," a radio show aimed at housewives, but his career foundered in the 1950's. He was singing in a piano bar when Westinghouse offered him his own television talk show in 1961.

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Performing an impromptu sing-a-long on 'The Mike Douglas Show'

are (L-R) Mike Douglas, Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Ralph Nader

"The Mike Douglas Show" began in Cleveland on a single station in December 1961. Within two years it was seen in Boston, Baltimore, San Francisco and Pittsburgh. The show moved to Philadelphia in 1965, making it easier to attract guests from New York. Its fame increased.

By 1967, it was the most popular show on daytime television; the 14 minutes of commercials on the 90-minute show produced about $10 million annually for its creators, and Douglas, his wife and their three daughters were living in a 30-room Tudor mansion on the Main Line in Philadelphia. His ratings eventually declined in the 1970's, and his long run ended in 1981.

"Mike is the glue," his producer, Ailes, said in 1967, the year the show won its first of five Emmy Awards. "Without him the show would fall apart." Another of his producers, Larry Rosen, called Douglas "a piece of clay

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'Tonight Show' Host Pays Tribute To Mike Douglas

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Jay Leno paid tribute to fellow talk show icon Mike Douglas

BURBANK, California -- NBC's "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno took a moment during the show's Friday, August 11 taping to remember legendary talk-show host and singer Mike Douglas. Douglas passed away that Friday morning on his 81st birthday.

Leno, who made his first national television appearance on Douglas' syndicated show in the early-'70s and was a frequent guest over the years, paused to pay tribute. "Hey folks, I wanna take just a minute to discuss the passing of one of one of the all time talk show greats," said Leno.

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Mike Douglas

"Mike Douglas passed away today at the age of 81. Yeah, today was his birthday, 81-years-old," Leno continued. "For those young people if you don't remember, before there was Oprah or Dr. Phil or Ellen, or any of these people, there was Mike Douglas."

"He did a daytime talk show from '61 until '81 and he was the nicest man," Leno remembered. "He was a truest gentleman. Although he was from the Midwest, he really understood that to do a show, he brought all kinds of people together."

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Mike Douglas (left) interviews California Governor Jerry Brown

(center) and 'M*A*S*H' actor Mike Farrell (right)

"I remember he did Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, long before anyone else did," Leno added. "The Rolling Stones -- the only talk show appearance they ever did -- was on Mike Douglas' show. I mean he did Mother Theresa; he did all kinds of stuff."

"Actually, it was the first talk show I ever did. I was a kid. I was like 21-years-old. He was a gentleman. He was a decent man, never a hint of scandal. Did his show out of Philadelphia. He wasn't a Hollywood guy, wasn't a New York guy."

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Mike Douglas

"So any young people, if you ever think of being a talk show host, you couldn't find a better role model than Mike Douglas. So to his family and friends, God bless you -- and say a little prayer for Mike. A great, great guy."

"The Mike Douglas Show," which featured a weekly co-host, comedians, celebrities and political figures, began in Cleveland in 1961. In 1963, the show was syndicated and in 1965, it moved to Philadelphia where it made its home for 13 years before moving to Los Angeles.

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Mike Douglas (left) interviews actress Maureen Stapleton (center)

and 'All in the Family' star Jean Stapleton (right)

Douglas' popular daytime show attracted the likes of then unknown comic Leno, his fellow late night competitor David Letterman, legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, young comedians Billy Crystal and Steve Martin, boxing great Muhammad Ali, Oscar winner John Wayne, Fred Astaire, President Gerald Ford and musician Billy Joel.

In 1978, a very young Tiger Woods appeared on his show. In the early '60s, a 20-year-old Barbra Streisand co-hosted a week with Douglas. During one of the most famous and controversial weeks of the show from February 14-18, 1972, John Lennon and Yoko Ono took on the role of co-hosts.

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