Richard Dawson has died, and though he retired his microphone decades ago in favor of a quiet life in Beverly Hills, the blow to our national identity is acute. You think Don Draper typifies that lost American masculinity we’re all obsessed with these days—the smooth talk, the boozy swagger, the perfectly cut suits? Don Draper is an inarticulate slob compared to Richard Dawson.
Dawson cemented his legacy in the 1980s as the Kissing Bandit of the Family Feud, smooching, by one count, 20,000 female contestants during his nine years hosting the program. But he was at his best before the Feud began, back when he was a panelist on Match Game, the shockingly naughty 1970s game show hosted by Gene Rayburn’s sideburns. None of the teenage humping on television today is even remotely as titillating as Match Game, which asked contestants to fill in blanks in a series of suggestive sentences. There was no correct answer; the winner was the contestant who gave the same reply as the most members of a celebrity panel that included a young Betty White, a drunk Charles Nelson Reilly, and Dawson, the undisputed crowd favorite.
Match Game was the product of an era when women were “girls” and men wore turtlenecks under their three-piece suits. Dawson was the manliest of these men, and to show it, he often smoked right there on stage. British-born, he had a level of self-possession that seemed virtually Bond-like in the urbanity vacuum of CBS prime time. He flirted openly and aggressively with pretty female contestants. In his arsenal of seduction: He winked, without irony and often.
Dawson, who died June 2, at the age of 79 from complications from esophageal cancer, had a Draper-like backstory. Born Colin Lionel Emm in Hampshire, England, he ran away at age 14 to join the Merchant Marines. After his discharge, he performed comedy under the stage name Dickie Dawson. He married twice: first, in 1959, to Diana Dors, the “English Marilyn Monroe,” a relationship that lasted seven years. In 1991, he settled down with Gretchen Johnson, a pretty blonde he met when she was a contestant on Family Feud. When he made an attempt at a comeback in 1999, he made (and kept) a promise to his wife and daughter: that he would not kiss any of the women.
A generation apart from most of his fans, I discovered Dawson in the early 2000s, when the Game Show Network aired Match Game re-runs during the mid-day hours when a college student might be waking up. This was the age of Dawson’s Creek, and I was accustomed to wide-eyed high school students fighting and making out on the docks. The earlier Dawson, the 1973 vintage, was a revelation when I first saw him, smirking under several layers of bespoke Glen plaid. In real life he was in his sixties, but on basic cable, he was forever 41. On a whim, thinking he probably didn’t get much mail those days, I sent a fan letter to an address I found online.
The greatest game shows of the 1970s and 1980s rarely rewarded intelligence so much as cleverness, spunk and the ability to connect with other average Joes. Instead of “What’s the answer to this question?” it was all about “Can you guess how another person, or 100 other people, or your wife, would answer it?” Victory at Match Game required canniness and good humor. It was a game that could have been, and very often seemingly was, performed very successfully while blind drunk. A typical question went like this: “Nate the delicatessen owner is a fantastic violinist. But he doesn’t use a bow. He strokes the violin with his _________.” (Go back in time and play along with another “celebrity” panelist, Gary Burghoff, fresh off his run as Radar O’Reilly on M*A*S*H.)
The best answer was frequently a euphemism for genitalia that rhymed or served as a double entendre. In this case, Burghoff, usually only a mediocre player, got it right: “salami.” Dawson was never wrong. He had the best answer, he had it first, and he delivered it with panache. We get all tingly when Don Draper switches into populist mode and gives a soaring speech about the power of Kodachrome, but the game show panelist and former Hogan’s Heroes star did this for decades, in front of a live studio audience, with greater flair.
Months after I wrote to Dawson, long after I’d forgotten ever having done it, I received an envelope in the mail. Inside was not an autographed photo, but a photocopy of an autographed photo with my name written on top. (Turns out he still received plenty of letters.) The fact that it was a photocopy made it even better, like I had guessed the same answer as hundreds of other people surveyed and won a prize. I framed it and hung it above my desk.
The picture captures Dawson of the Feud years, when age and fame had softened the sharper edges of his prime. It is a distinguished portrait. He wears a dark suit and tie. But the young rogue of Match Game is still there, visible in the turn of his smile. Dawson looks right into the camera and smirks, like a man who knows exactly what the rest of us are thinking.