Another legend in pop culture history has left us with the June 2 passing of Richard Dawson. The comedian, actor and -- perhaps most famously -- game show host and panelist was 79.
Born Colin Lionel Emm, Dawson had his breakthrough on American television in the 1960s, playing Corporal Peter Newkirk on CBS' popular sitcom "Hogan's Heroes." When that show ended in 1971, he transitioned to a spot in the regular ensemble on the NBC sketch comedy series "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" for two seasons.
The actor's experience on the freewheeling "Laugh-In" was likely a great help to him as he joined the initial panel of the CBS game show-slash-televised cocktail party "Match Game" in 1973. Producer Mark Goodson, who had hired Dawson to be on the panel of his syndicated revival of "I've Got a Secret" the year before, gave him a regular position on the show, seated in the middle of the bottom row. Dawson rapidly became a contestant's best friend; he was often selected as the bonus round celebrity partner, mostly because of his almost uncanny ability to match the contestant's word choice.
In 1976, Dawson was given his own game show to host, ABC's "Family Feud" (also produced by Goodson), while maintaining his panelist spot on "Match Game." It was on "Feud" that Dawson was able to bring together the various facets of himself he'd displayed in other shows, scripted and unscripted -- the dapper dresser, the wiseacre comic, the cool ladies' man (he was infamous for kissing every woman contestant on the show) -- into one on-air persona. While the game itself was often entertaining, make no mistake, Dawson was the central reason why people were watching in droves.
Dawson left "Match Game" in 1978 to concentrate on the now higher-rated "Feud" full-time; the same year, he also won the Outstanding Game Show Host Emmy award. "Feud" remained a part of ABC's daytime lineup for 7 more years -- an eternity in the TV business, even then -- until it and the nighttime version were cancelled in 1985.
After the show ended, Dawson was cast as a game show host -- albeit a particularly villainous one -- in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie "The Running Man." He could have perhaps phoned in the performance, but happily, you can tell that he did his due diligence as an actor; his Killian is a dark, razor-sharp -- and at times, vicious -- parody of Dawson's own well-established television persona. The movie itself ends up as a mostly routine action picture, but Dawson's work stands head-and-shoulders above it.
He also gets the best line in the movie; Schwarzenegger's hero, strapped into a rocket sled and headed for a deadly fate, barks his now-famous warning, "I'll be back," to which Dawson replies, with a knowing grin, "Only in reruns."
Funny enough, that's where Dawson's most famous TV work can be found now; his best "Match Game" and "Family Feud" moments will live forever on GSN and YouTube and even DVD (there are a number of "Family Feud" celebrity specials in a box set). Those programs are worth seeking out if you want to admire the work of a uniquely talented performer in his prime.