Chuck Barris, Producer and Personality of ‘Gong Show’ Fame, Dies at 87

Chuck Barris, the “Gong Show” creator, songwriter and novelist who sought to add to his already eclectic résumé with a made-up — or was it? — story about being an assassin for the C.I.A., died on Tuesday at his home in Palisades, N.Y. He was 87.

His death was announced by a spokesman, Paul Shefrin.

“The Gong Show” was just one of Mr. Barris’s hit game show creations. In the 1960s he came up with “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game,” making a spectacle of his contestants’ romantic yearnings in the first case and their honeymoon-period bliss, adjustments and foibles in the second.

Mr. Barris might have earned a brief mention in the obituary pages with one of his earliest accomplishments: He wrote the pop song “Palisades Park,” which became a hit for Freddy Cannon in 1962 and an emblem of that period of good-time rock ’n’ roll just before the genre’s harder, louder side emerged.

Decades later, in 2007, Mr. Cannon, a Massachusetts native, wanted to rework the song into a rally ditty for his favorite baseball team, the Boston Red Sox. But, he told The Boston Globe, he received a complaint from Mr. Barris, a Yankee fan, and so “Down at Fenway Park” ended up being a Cannon original rather than a repurposed Barris.

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Mr. Barris wrote “Palisades Park” along an odd path to an eventual career in television. He was born in Philadelphia on June 3, 1929. to Dr. Nathaniel Barris, a dentist, and the former Edith Cohen; his father died when he was young.

After graduating from Drexel University in his home city in 1953, he was accepted into a management training program at NBC in 1955. But, he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2003, the department he was placed in — daytime sales — was eliminated, and he found himself trying, unsuccessfully, to sell the devices then known as TelePrompTers.

During the payola scandals of the 1950s, he was hired to keep a young ABC star, Dick Clark, of “American Bandstand,” out of trouble. (“He sat around doing nothing all day but drawing on a pad of paper,” Mr. Clark told The Inquirer.) By 1959 he was ABC’s director of West Coast daytime programming.

But he wanted to make his own shows, and in 1965 he came up with “The Dating Game,” in which a bachelorette or bachelor would choose a date from among three unseen members of the opposite sex after asking them questions.

He followed that the next year with “The Newlywed Game,” another question-and-answer show that put just-married couples’ compatibility to the test. Both shows stayed on the air into the mid-1970s and spawned assorted sequels (“The All-New Dating Game” and “The New Newlywed Game”).

Mr. Barris’s next game shows were less successful, but just as it seemed he was losing his touch, he came up with the concept that would catapult him to a new level of fame: “The Gong Show,” which had its premiere on NBC in June 1976. The show featured a series of performers, most of them amateurs, and a panel of three celebrity judges. Mr. Barris himself was the brash, irritating host.

The performers, who were often terrible, would be allowed to go on until one of the judges couldn’t stand it anymore and sounded a gong, putting an end to the spectacle. Those who weren’t gonged were rated by the judges on a 1-to-10 scale. In keeping with the ridiculousness of the proceedings, the prize amount they vied for was ridiculous: $516.32 on the daytime version of the show, $712.05 on the prime-time edition.

The show, which ran on NBC until 1978 and then in syndication (with revivals in later years), became a cultural sensation. Critics complained about its crassness and cruelty, but Mr. Barris, like purveyors of burlesque and circus sideshows in earlier generations, knew there was a large audience for lowbrow. At one point the daytime version was attracting 78 percent of viewers 18 to 49.

“In my opinion, a good game show review is the kiss of death,” Mr. Barris said in a Salon interview in 2001. “If for some strange reason the critic liked it, the public won’t. A really bad review means the show will be on for years.”

The ghost of “The Gong Show” is evident in numerous reality-television shows of more recent vintage — the early rounds of any given season of “American Idol,” for instance.

Mr. Barris always bristled at the “King of Schlock” label that was hung on him as far back as “The Dating Game.” In a 2003 interview with Newsweek, he noted that shows much like the ones he created were by the 21st century being received differently.

“Today these shows are accepted,” he said. “These shows aren’t seen as lowering any bars.”

By the end of the 1970s, thanks to “The Gong Show,” Mr. Barris’s television production company was busy and profitable, but he was itchy to try something else. What he tried, disastrously, was “The Gong Show Movie,” which he directed and, with Robert Downey Sr., wrote. It was released in May 1980 and flopped.

Mr. Barris gradually withdrew from television, selling his holdings, spending most of his time in France and turning to writing. He had already written one book, “You and Me, Babe” (1974), a novel about a television producer whose marriage failed; it drew heavily on his own rocky marriage to Lyn Levy, a niece of the powerful CBS chief William S. Paley, in the 1950s. They were divorced in 1976.

That first book sold well, but it was the next one that would give Mr. Barris yet another burst of notoriety: “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (1984), a supposed autobiography in which he claimed that while traveling in his role as a television producer in the 1960s he was also an assassin for the C.I.A.

The book got only a smattering of attention, but it caught some eyes in Hollywood, and in 2003, after many delays, a film version came out, directed by George Clooney and starring Sam Rockwell as Mr. Barris. (Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay, embellishing Mr. Barris’s tale.)

The film brought Mr. Barris, by now in his 70s, a fresh round of publicity and endless variations on the obvious question: Was it true? Mr. Barris generally played coy, delivering elliptical answers that neither confirmed nor denied. The C.I.A. was more direct: Various spokesmen said Mr. Barris had had nothing to do with the agency.

In later years Mr. Barris continued to write books, among them the comic novels “The Big Question” (2007), about an outlandish game show where the stakes are literally life or death, and “Who Killed Art Deco?” (2009), about the murder of a wealthy young man.

In 2010 he turned to a much more serious subject with “Della: A Memoir of My Daughter,” telling the story of his only child — from his marriage to Ms. Levy — who as a girl sometimes turned up on “The Gong Show.” She died of a drug overdose in 1998, at 36.

Mr. Barris’s second marriage, to Robin Altman, ended in divorce in 1999. He is survived by his wife, the former Mary Clagett.

Which of his several careers was his favorite? In 2007, during an appearance at the Book Passage bookstore in Corte Madera, Calif., he dealt with the question.

“When you go to that great game show in the sky,” he asked himself, “would you rather be known as an author or as a TV game show producer?”

“That’s the easiest question of all,” he responded. “I would love to be known as an author, but I don’t think it’s written that that’s the way it’s going to be. I think on my tombstone it’s just going to say, ‘Gonged at last,’ and I’m stuck with that.”

Chuck Barris as host of “The Gong Show,” which he created. It became a phenomenon after its 1976 debut, but Mr. Barris had earlier hits, including “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game.” Credit Game Show Network


'Gong Show' creator Chuck Barris dies at 87

Chuck Barris, whose game show empire included "The Dating Game," "The Newlywed Game" and that infamous factory of cheese, "The Gong Show," has died. He was 87.

Barris died of natural causes Tuesday afternoon at his home in Palisades, Rockland County, according to publicist Paul Shefrin, who announced the death on behalf of Barris' family.

Barris made game show history right off the bat, in 1966, with "The Dating Game," hosted by Jim Lange. The gimmick: a young female questions three males, hidden from her view, to determine which would be the best date. Sometimes the process was switched, with a male questioning three females. But in all cases, the questions were designed by the show's writers to elicit sexy answers.

Celebrities and future celebrities who appeared as contestants included Michael Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steve Martin and a pre-"Charlie's Angels" Farrah Fawcett, introduced as "an accomplished artist and sculptress" with a dream to open her own gallery.

After the show became a hit on both daytime and nighttime TV, the Barris machine accelerated. New products included "The Newlywed Game," "The Parent Game," "The Family Game" and even "The Game Game."

At one point Barris was supplying the television networks with 27 hours of entertainment a week, mostly in five-days-a-week daytime game shows.

The grinning, curly-haired Barris became a familiar face as creator and host of "The Gong Show," which aired from 1976 to 1980.

Patterned after the Major Bowes Amateur Hour show that was a radio hit in the 1930s, the program featured performers who had peculiar talents and, often, no talent at all. When the latter appeared on the show, Barris would strike an oversize gong, the show's equivalent of vaudeville's hook. The victims would then be mercilessly berated by the manic Barris, with a hat often yanked down over his eyes and ears, and a crew of second-tier celebrities.

Occasionally, someone would actually launch a successful career through the show. One example was the late country musician BoxCar Willie, who was a 1977 "Gong Show" winner.

He called himself "The King of Daytime Television," but to critics he was "The King of Schlock" or "The Baron of Bad Taste."

As "The Gong Show" and Barris' other series were slipping, he sold his company for a reported $100 million in 1980 and decided to go into films.

He directed and starred in "The Gong Show Movie," a thundering failure that stayed in theaters only a week.
Afterward, a distraught Barris checked into a New York hotel and wrote his autobiography, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," in two months. In it, he claimed to have been a CIA assassin.

The book (and the 2002 film based on it, directed by George Clooney) were widely dismissed by disbelievers who said the creator of some of television's most lowbrow game shows had allowed his imagination to run wild when he claimed to have spent his spare time traveling the world, quietly rubbing out enemies of the United States.

"It sounds like he has been standing too close to the gong all those years," quipped CIA spokesman Tom Crispell. "Chuck Barris has never been employed by the CIA and the allegation that he was a hired assassin is absurd," Crispell added.

Barris, who offered no corroboration of his claims, was unmoved.

"Have you ever heard the CIA acknowledge someone was an assassin?" he once asked.

Seeking escape from the Hollywood rat race, he moved to a villa in the south of France in the 1980s with his girlfriend and future second wife, Robin Altman, and made only infrequent returns to his old haunts over the next two decades.

Back in the news in 2002 to help publicize "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," Barris said his shows were a forerunner to today's popular reality TV series.

Born in Philadelphia in 1929, Charles Barris was left destitute, along with his sister and their mother, when his dentist father died of a stroke.

After graduating from the Drexel Institute of Technology in 1953, he took a series of jobs, including book salesman and fight promoter.

After being dropped from a low-level job at NBC, he found work at ABC, where he persuaded his bosses to let him open a Hollywood office, from which he launched his game-show empire. He also had success in the music world. He wrote the 1962 hit record "Palisades Park," which was recorded by Freddy Cannon.

Barris's first marriage, to Lynn Levy, ended in divorce. Their daughter, Della, died of a drug overdose in 1998. He married his third wife, Mary, in 2000.

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