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His Way

Down memory lane with Merv Griffin.

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Here's an offer you may well find the strength to refuse: eight hours of clips from the old Merv Griffin Show. They're on a new DVD set called The Merv Griffin Show: 40 of the Most Interesting People of Our Time, but you may feel less inclined to run to your video store than to run for your life.

Many in today's TV audience haven't even heard of Merv except as producer and creator of Jeopardy, the long-running quiz show. But back in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, Merv hosted his own talk shows, syndicated desk-and-couch interview sessions that did, in fact, attract a wide range of guests. Merv was a lighthearted, sometimes lightheaded interviewer who, like Jack Paar before him (though hardly as clever or innovative), mixed guests from show business with figures from politics and the real world.

Guests on the DVDs run the proverbial gamut -- from John Wayne to Richard Pryor (very early in his career), from Roy Rogers to Jerry Seinfeld (in 1986, five years before Seinfeld exploded), from Walter Cronkite to Donald Duck (or at least Clarence "Ducky" Nash, the voice of Donald in the Disney cartoons).

One of the best things about the collection -- which follows similar DVD sets from Paar and Dick Cavett -- is that the clips are not just radically truncated little peeps at people. Jack Benny is on for almost an hour, a treat for those of us old enough to remember one of the greatest comedians in broadcasting. All kinds of comedy are represented, including Jay Leno looking fresh and eager in 1982 and telling jokes about the Falkland Islands (remember them?); the late Totie Fields, who will be familiar only to the oldest viewers; and Jackie Mason, who in 1965 was just beginning to be hilarious and still is today.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan are the most luminous visitors on the third disc, called "Extraordinary Guests." Merv visits them on the second floor of the White House. The interview was taped only a few months after President Reagan recovered from an attempt on his life.

Other "extraordinary guests" include Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter. Sometimes, Merv showed surprising moxie. He had the nerve to ask Richard Nixon how it felt to be thought of as "such a loser." Nixon brandished a frigid smile.

Merv was so busy leaning in toward the guests -- apparently his idea of putting them at ease -- that he didn't always hear what they said. Denzel Washington, a guest when his career was young, tells Merv that he and his wife have named their son John David. Only a minute or two later Merv brings up the son again and asks Washington, "What did you name him?"

Others passing by include Tom Cruise, just having his first success with Risky Business in 1983; Jane Fonda; Sammy Davis Jr. interviewed in 1966 and predicting that in a few years Sony would be selling videotape recorders for use in the home (imagine that); and Orson Welles, who died, Merv says, only hours after taping the interview.

Barely acknowledged by Merv is Arthur Treacher, the venerable British character actor who served as Merv's amusingly grumpy announcer during the first years of the show. Off-camera, Treacher would refer to Griffin as "that wretched little man."

Later, after Treacher's death, Merv saved money by being his own announcer ("And now, here I come!") and taping the show from his own theater. According to the credits, he has even managed to copyright the word "Merv." He's a ham and sometimes a buffoon, but pop one of these DVDs into your machine and you'll zoom down memory lane so fast it might make your head spin.

Memory lane is a one-way street, however, and it's best not to spend too much time there. It's hard to imagine that even Merv could tolerate eight hours of Merv in one sitting, but then that's why DVD players have "eject" buttons.

In Merv's immortal mantra -- run together as if it were one long word -- "We'll be right back."

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