The Life Of ‘Family Feud’ Star Richard Dawson

Richard Dawson is best known for hosting the popular game show Family Feud from 1976 until 1985 as well as for another season between 1994 and 1995. The British-born actor also starred on the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes before launching his career as a game show staple.

While today his open fondness for female contestants would be frowned upon, in his time Dawson’s actions were largely accepted by many fans, TV viewers, and the contestants themselves. Here are some interesting facts about Dawson’s life and career that you may not know…

He Ran Away From Home As A Teen & Aspired To Be A Professional Boxer

dawson in his younger days
Archive Photos/Getty Images
Archive Photos/Getty Images

Richard Dawson was born Colin Lionel Emm on Nov. 20, 1932, in Gosport, Hampshire, England. During World War II, his family was evacuated from their hometown to escape bombing. Due to the war, his attendance at school was sporadic, so he didn’t receive a complete education.

When he was just 14 years old, he ran away from home and joined the British Merchant Navy. While serving in the Navy he expressed interest in a boxing career. After he was discharged, he took the stage name Dickie Dawson and began a comedy career.

He Smoked Nearly Four Packs Of Cigarettes A Day

close up of richard dawson
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Dawson was heavily addicted to nicotine. At one point he smoked nearly four packs of cigarettes a day. Dawson is even depicted smoking cigarettes in some episodes of Match Game and Family Feud. The game show host finally quit smoking in 1994 when he was 64 years with the encouragement of his daughter, Shannon.

Unfortunately, Dawson was eventually diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He died at the age of 79 in Los Angeles, California, on June 2, 2012. He had three children and four grandchildren.

Dawson’s career got a kick start in the United States.

Dawson First Became Famous In America For Hogan’s Heroes

a still from hogan's heroes
LMPC via Getty Images
LMPC via Getty Images

Years before Dawson became the affectionate host on Family Feud he played Royal Air Force Cpl. Peter Newkirk on the ’60s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. The show centered on a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. He then made the transition to game shows.

During the sixties, game shows were very popular and often featured actors and celebrity contestants. Despite leaving school at a young age, Dawson had knowledge of a variety of topics and subjects. As a result, he was a very popular contestant. He played brilliantly and also had a great personality.

After Hogan’s Heroes He Joined The Match Game Celebrity Panel & Won People Over With His Personality

hogan's heroes
CBS/Getty Images
CBS/Getty Images

When he no longer worked on Hogan’s Heroes, Dawson joined the celebrity panel on the game show Match Game. The Mark Goodson-Bill Todman quiz show involved a group of contestants who had to match their answers to a fill-in-the-blank question with those on the celebrity board.

Host Gene Reyburn made the show particularly compelling, and the celebrity panel featured a revolving crew of regular guests, including Dawson, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Brett Somers. Dawson’s personality won people over. He was sometimes funny, sometimes moody, and sometimes completely nonreactive. Fans loved his expressions.

He Was Known As The Kissing Bandit On Family Feud

family feud
ABC Television/Wikimedia Commons public domain
ABC Television/Wikimedia Commons public domain

Dawson was the first host of Family Feud, which debuted in 1976. He was prepared to audition for the game show but faced some complications when he heard rumors that the show was to be hosted by William Shatner from the original Star Trek. Dawson won out, and his personality was described as a cross between that of Wink Martindale and Chuck Barris.

Dawson was noted for his overt affections toward female contestants regardless of how old or young they were. Thus, he earned the nickname “The Kissing Bandit.” Executive producer Howard Felsher estimated Dawson had kissed “somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000” women.

There was a very good reason for all those smooches.

He Only Kissed Those Female Contestants ‘For Luck’

color photo of richard dawson
Getty Images
Getty Images

These days, it would be unthinkable for a game show host to kiss every single female contestant he encountered, especially on the lips. But in the ’70s most people didn’t seem to have a problem with Dawson and his attention to women. He later said of his habit, “I kissed them for luck and love, that’s all.”

Still, Saturday Night Live couldn’t help but make fun of Dawson in the ’70s. Bill Murray played the game show host as a creepy and leering man who at one point slaps a contestant (played by John Belushi) for getting frisky.

He Controversially Smooched Women Regardless Of Their Skin Color

GettyImages-2192750
ABC Television/Fotos International/Getty Images
ABC Television/Fotos International/Getty Images

Dawson was blind to skin color and didn’t have a problem sharing his affection with women of all races. Yet, it wasn’t always acceptable to see interracial public displays of affection.

He once recalled in an interview, “When I first came here, Petula Clark was on a show with Nat King Cole and he kissed her on the cheek, and 81 stations in the South canceled him. I kissed black women daily and nightly (on Family Feud) for 11 years and the world didn’t come to an end, did it?”

Producers Tried To Put A Stop To All That Kissing But Failed

dawson on the show
ABC Television/Fotos International/Getty Images
ABC Television/Fotos International/Getty Images

It wasn’t long after Dawson started hosting Family Feud that producers try to put the kibosh on his kissing antics. Dawson later recalled that sponsors were allegedly put off by Dawson kissing women without knowing whether they were married or if he was given permission.

Dawson believed it may have had to do with him kissing women of color. In an unofficial survey, viewers voted overwhelmingly in his favor to allow him to keep kissing contestants. Contestants also reportedly filled out a questionnaire asking them if it was okay that Dawson kissed them.

At The Height Of Its Popularity, 40 Million Viewers Watched Dawson On Family Feud

GettyImages-111992112
Denise Truscello/WireImage
Denise Truscello/WireImage

After Family Feud debuted, it didn’t take long for the show to become one of the most popular programs on the boob tube. The set up was simple: two families competed against one another to guess the answers to common survey questions. The show’s ratings were often higher than soap operas.

At the peak of its popularity, Family Feud aired five times a week during the daytime and six times a week in the evening. It also had more than 40 million viewers. In 1978, Dawson was given an Emmy award for his hosting duties.

He married a beautiful British actress.

Dawson’s First Wife Was Blonde Bombshell Diana Dors

GettyImages-548156273
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Dawson married English actress Diana Dors in the late ’50s. She was known as the British Marilyn Monroe. Dawson was Dors’ second husband. She married Dawson just a few months after her first husband died. Dawson and Dors had two sons, Mark and Gary, and lived all over the world, including London, New York, and Hollywood.

Dawson and Dors divorced after just seven years of marriage. A few years later she married her third husband. He took his own life five months after her death from cancer in 1984.

One Of His And Diana’s Sons Went Into The Entertainment Business

dawson and family
Derek Berwin/Fox Photos/Getty Images
Derek Berwin/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Mark Dawson was born in London and appeared in a few episodes of Family Feud with his father. Mark later became a question writer for The Price Is Right, Concentration, The Better Sex, Match Game, and Family Feud. He was an associate producer on You Bet Your Life in the 1980s.

In addition to other projects, Mark managed the all-female tribute band The Iron Maidens, the cover band Crabby Patty, and the all-female heavy metal band Phantom Blue. He is currently the CEO of Dawson, Reeves and Zutaut Entertainment Group (a.k.a. DRZ Entertainment Group) in Los Angeles.

His First Wife Threw Many Risque, Adult Parties Throughout Her Lifetime

dawson and dors
David Farrell/Getty Images
David Farrell/Getty Images

One of Dors’ favorite pastimes was entertaining her friends. She first started throwing parties while married to her first husband, Dennis Hamilton, and the tradition continued throughout her life until just a few months before her death at age 53. She often invited celebrities and young starlets, who indulged heavily in alcohol and drugs.

The parties involved some X-rated action that was recorded on film. Dors’ house was allegedly hooked up to a variety of 8 mm movie cameras. She reportedly kept the films for her own personal enjoyment.

Dawson Played A Twisted Version Of Himself Alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger In The Running Man

runningman
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Just a couple years after Dawson’s initial iteration of Family Feud went off the air, he once again put on his game show hat in a big-screen movie alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the 1987 film The Running Man, Dawson played the host of a TV show set in the future in which convicts are the contestants and try to escape from being killed.

The movie was loosely based on the 1982 novel of the same title written by Stephen King. Critics enjoyed Dawson’s acting, and Roger Ebert praised his performance, stating that Dawson “has at last found the role he was born to play.”

He missed out on the job of a lifetime.

Dawson Was Nearly Johnny Carson’s Successor

GettyImages-514870892
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images

In the late ’70s, Dawson frequently appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. At one point, Dawson was considered as a replacement for Carson when the late-night host briefly thought about retiring. Dawson did guest host a couple of times, including an episode in which guest Della Reese suffered a near-fatal aneurysm during the interview.

Dawson wasn’t shy about expressing his opinions and used his celebrity power to let people know how he felt. At one point, he slammed Henry Kissinger about the Vietnam War. He was also known to take shots at President Richard Nixon.

He Married A Family Feud Contestant

GettyImages-2192733
ABC Television/Fotos International/Getty Images
ABC Television/Fotos International/Getty Images

All that kissing must have paid off. Dawson met his second wife, Gretchen Johnson, when she appeared on an episode in May 1981 as a contestant. The couple tied the knot in 1991 after their daughter, Shannon Nicole Dawson, was born the year prior. A moment from Dawson’s Family Feud hosting duties made the number-two spot on Game Show Network’s top 25 Feud moments.

The episode involved Dawson announcing the birth of his daughter and showing off her picture as he greeted a contestant. The contestant had also been on the show Match Game in which years earlier Dawson was a panelist.

Dawson’s Family Feud Kissing Finally Stopped In The ’90s

dawson stopped his kissing
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Dawson was 49 and his future bride was just 24 years old when they met on Family Feud. Dawson ended up smooching his future wife four times on the lips in that single episode. He later recalled that he felt a spark between them. She gave him her number, but she didn’t answer the phone when he called.

He later found out she had wisdom tooth surgery. A few weeks later he cooked her dinner, and a love connection was made. He later gave up kissing contestants when he returned to the show in the ’90s out of respect for his daughter. He said, “I can’t kiss any of the ladies because I promised my daughter I would only kiss Mom.”

Even Dawson’s star power couldn’t make Family Feud popular again.

He Made A Family Feud Comeback Replacing Ray Combs, But It Was Canceled

combs
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

By the mid-’90s, Ray Combs was hosting Family Feud, but the show’s ratings were increasingly getting lower and lower. Dawson rejoined the program in 1994 in order to give it a ratings boost. He was only there for one season before it was canceled in 1995 (and before it was resurrected again several years later).

That was when Dawson officially retired from Family Feud for good. He turned down an offer to make a special appearance on the series in 1999 when it once again went back on the air.

Dawson, Pictured Here on Laugh-In, Had A Witty Banter With His Game Show Contestants

laugh in
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images

Dawson was known for wearing a flower on his lapel and for his clever remarks when engaging with the contestants. During a 2010 Archive of American Television interview he noted that he always wanted to encourage the players. When they gave an answer, he would yell, “Survey says …” as the contestants and viewers waited to see if the answer appeared on the board.

“The thing that I loved about Feud, we froze a moment in time for these families that had never occurred before,” he explained, adding the game show would then give the families videotapes of the program. “That’s magic,” he said.

He Wasn’t A Fan Of Modern Game Shows

running man
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

During a 2010 interview, Dawson (pictured here in Running Man) said of today’s crop of game shows: “I don’t find any soul in those shows. I’m not being noble.” He also mocked himself, saying, “What a grouch. He’s turned into a grouch.”

When asked how he would like to be remembered, he said, “That I did care. Probably not as much as I should. It’s easy to duck out of things, but lots of things touch me and I try to help some people … that I was kind, and I was a nice person. You wouldn’t want to move if you sat next to me on the bus. Or maybe you would.”

Saying Goodbye To Family Feud

saying goodbye
Pinterest/jacquelinearobinson
Pinterest/jacquelinearobinson

When Richard Dawson filmed his final episode of Family Feud the live studio audience gave him a standing ovation, and he was overwhelmed by the attention. He said, “Please sit down. I have to do at least 30 minutes of fun and laughter and you make me want to cry.”

He jokingly added, “I’ve had the most incredible luck in my career. I never dreamed I would have a job in which so many people could touch me and I could touch them.” The show is still on the air today with Steve Harvey as the host.

Dawson Didn’t Care If He Lost Sponsors

Richard Dawson attends Holmes vs. Shavers Boxing Match on September 28, 1979 at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

As you’ve already read, Dawson wasn’t afraid to speak his mind on live television. At some points it got him into hot water with the network but he refused to back down. When a sponsor for Family Feud threatened to back out after Dawson’s remarks about Richard Nixon, ABC execs told him to stop. Instead, Dawson went on the air the next day addressing the unnamed company, telling them that if they didn’t like his Nixon jokes then they could take their business elsewhere.

When ABC threatened to edit out his remark, Dawson threatened to quit. In the end, Dawson got his way.

How The Kissing Started In The First Place

richard dawson on family feud
@SilverAgeTV/Twitter
@SilverAgeTV/Twitter

The Kissing Bandit had to start somewhere. Dawson recalled to The Washington Post in 1978 that it all started a few weeks into the show. “I got to the end of the line and here was the rather darling lady about 50 or so and she was so nervous, she was a basket case. She didn’t want to let her family down but she had no idea at all what to saw and I said, ‘I’ll do what my mom used to do,’ and I kissed her on the cheek, and she gave an answer and it was there on the board,” he said.

“Then I went over to the other family and a woman said, ‘Don’t I get a kiss, too?’ and after that there was no stopping it.”

He Couldn’t Believe His Contestants Sometimes

a still of richard dawson
@SilverAgeTV/Twitter
@SilverAgeTV/Twitter

Part of Dawson’s joy as the host of Family Feud was hearing all the insane answers that families would give under pressure. Sometimes he just couldn’t contain themselves when an answer was so unequivocally absurd. In one game, he asked contestants to name an animal with three letters in its name.

One man said “frog” which sent Dawson bursting into laughter. When the brother was asked, he responded with “alligator.” “They sent me silver tie clips later. One sent me a frog and one sent me an alligator,” Dawson recalled.

He Egged On Contestants On Purpose

richard dawson hosting family feud
@CemeteryGuide/Twitter
@CemeteryGuide/Twitter

Dawson was known for the banter he kept up with contestants, which many considered snarky at times. But this was something that Dawson would never change, despite suggestions to be charming like Bob Barker and other hosts.

“I’ll do sarcastic lines just to make the contestants angry enough so they’ll forget they’re on television and say, ‘I’ll show this (so-and-so),’ and come up with an answer,” Dawson once recalled. Dawson never felt the need to baby his contestants and it almost always worked.

He Helped Pioneer This On Television

richard dawson hosting family feud
@profilmstv/Twitter
@profilmstv/Twitter

One thing that Richard Dawson and his producer Howard Felsher are quite proud of with their work on Family Feud was the fact that they’ve pioneered diversity on national television. They never said “no” to having minority, elder, and handicapped contestants on the show, which was generally unheard of back in those days.

He treated everyone the same, as you’ve already read, and wasn’t afraid to say what was on his mind.

Dawson Kept His Feelings In Check

richard dawson on an episode of family feud
@PhotosHistos/Twitter
@PhotosHistos/Twitter

Richard Dawson was obviously one of the cheekiest game show hosts around, kissing his contestants, giving them snark, but still managing to get everyone to love him anyway. Of course, the attitude was all for the show since Dawson ostensibly appreciated all his contestants that were fans of his. But that didn’t mean he was very sentimental.

When asked by The Washington Post how he kept from feeling sorry for the losers of the show, he had the perfect response: “I don’t.”

He Made Contestants Feel Smart

richard dawson in a tuxedo
@CemeteryGuide/Twitter
@CemeteryGuide/Twitter

Dawson was known for his sarcasm towards his contestants but as it would turn out, there was a method to his madness. Speaking to EmmyTVLEgends, he said, “Everything about the show fit perfectly for me or how I think… Usually, I saw ‘good answer,’ in a sarcastic way. ‘Name a vegetable you have to peel to eat.’ They’d say grape, and I’d say ‘good answer.'”

“Or if I say, ‘the dictator we found against in World War II’—they’d say Otto Preminger and I’d say ‘the Otto Preminger?’ I’d talk to them like they had made sense.”

Richard Dawson Started Taking Over The Running Man

a still from the running man
TriStar Pictures
TriStar Pictures

If you’ve ever seen 1987’s The Running Man, then you’ve seen Richard Dawson in it. Dawson plays game show host Damon Killian and the role obviously wasn’t far off from what he did in real life. But what was supposed to be a supporting role that moved the plot along started growing into something more.

According to screenwriter Steven de Souza, Dawson began entertaining bored extras on set by calling them up to the stage and asking them questions, just like he did on Family Feud. Dawson would ad-lib so much that they eventually had to tell lead actor Arnold Schwarzenegger to knock out a guard and take a machine gun to get the script back on track.

He Was Never Afraid Of Catching Something

richard dawson kissing a contestant
@BarnabasTBynum/Twitter
@BarnabasTBynum/Twitter

For all the women that Richard Dawson has kissed on Family Feud, you would think that he ought to have eventually caught something from one of them. It is estimated that Dawson kissed up to 20,000 women as the host of the show and not once was he afraid to catch something like herpes.

“That has never crossed my mind,” he told The Durant Daily Democrat in 1984. An associate added, “He makes two million a year, and two million buys a lot of salve.

He Was Labeled A Far-Out Liberal

a photo of richard dawson
Tammie Arroyo/Getty Images
Tammie Arroyo/Getty Images

Because of his unabashed political opinions, Richard Dawson was labeled a “far-out liberal” early on in his career. He allegedly marched for civil rights in Selma and was anti-Communism.

“You tell the midwestern housewife that for the good of the state she’ll have to give up her washing machine… and her electric conveniences and take to scrubbing clothes against a rock in a stream and she will have none of it. No one is going to take away her washing machine, least of all for the good of the state,” he once said in a 1973 interview.

Dawson Faked It Till He Made It

a portrait of richard dawson
@Bob_Janke/Twitter
@Bob_Janke/Twitter

Dawson’s first taste of the lime light came after his brother bet him a month’s wages that he would never make it on a stage. While working as a waiter in his youth, Dawson decided to try out for the juvenile lead in a play at a local theater.

He almost gave up when he found that you needed prepared material to audition but instead he still decided to give it a shot. He used phony Shakespearean quotes that he made up on the spot for his audition and ended up landing the part!

He Lied To Get Into The Palladium

richard dawson at a telethon
@Super70sSports/Twitter
@Super70sSports/Twitter

After acting on the Isle of Wight for two seasons, he decided to up the ante with his newfound show business career. He forayed into comedy by writing a letter to a talent booking agency in London. The letter lied that he was a Canadian comic on vacation who was looking for a few weeks of work.

Fortunately, the agency fell for Dawson’s letter and hired him. The following year, he was already doing shows at the Palladium.

Dawson Was A Night Owl And A Book Worm

a portrait of richard dawson
@GroovyHistory/Twitter
@GroovyHistory/Twitter

According to an interview with the Daytona Beach Morning Journal from 1979, Richard Dawson is an avid reader and a night owl. He said that he is at his happiest when the sun is setting and likes to stay up late. He didn’t fall asleep easily at any time of the day.

What does he do when he is up into the wee hours of the night? He often stays up writing or reading and is said to have read five books a week.

Dawson Started From The Bottom

a still of richard dawson
@CemeteryGuide/Twitter
@CemeteryGuide/Twitter

Coming from a poor background, Richard Dawson knew how it was to work his way up through ranks from the very bottom. When he joined the Merchant Marines at 14, he started out as a laundry boy. He kept working harder and harder until he became a waiter. On the side, he’d box his shipmates for cash, which is how he got into boxing.

When he transferred to a posher ship, he paid the host to make sure he’d get to wait on the high tipping tables. “I’m a street fighter and a hustler,” Dawson said.

He Joked His Way Into America

a still from family feud
@SilverAgeTV/Twitter
@SilverAgeTV/Twitter

Richard Dawson didn’t become a U.S. citizen until the mid-’80s. But even before he applied to emigrate to the United States from England, he still had to fill out a questionnaire so that he could be approved to travel to America according to a 1973 article in The Phoenix.

One of the questions was, “Do you intend to overthrow the U.S. Government?” Dawson wrote in response, “Sole purpose of visit.” He was then called before emigration officials who asked, “Was this meant as a joke?” Dawson responded, “Was the original question meant as a joke?”

Richard Dawson Had Convictions About Becoming A Citizen

a photo of richard dawson on hogans heroes
@ClassicMovieHub/Twitter
@ClassicMovieHub/Twitter

Even though he eventually became a U.S. citizen, he had some trouble getting the ball rolling on his citizenship at first. Even though he was involved in U.S. politics and society throughout much of his career, Dawson always felt that he couldn’t handle all the responsibilities that came with the privilege of voting.

For one, becoming a citizen meant swearing his willingness to defend the nation’s security and causes. The Vietnam War was going on at the time and Dawson was against the U.S.’s involvement. “I figure it’s better for the country to have an honest alien than a dishonest citizen. We have enough trouble already,” he told The Phoenix.

He Wanted Americans To Exercise Their Rights

richard dawson with a beard
@Super70sSports/Twitter
@Super70sSports/Twitter

Even though Richard Dawson had his own doubts about officially becoming a U.S. citizen, he still considered it a very great privileged. That’s why whenever he saw someone who didn’t exercise their American rights to their full abilities, he was often disappointed.

“You don’t fully realize what opportunity you have here in America. You can follow any religious teaching – any political philosophy you like,” he told The Phoenix in 1973.

He Believed In Western Democracy

a photo of richard dawson
@SilverAgeTV/Twitter
@SilverAgeTV/Twitter

Another thing that Richard Dawson found so great about America was the fiber of Western democracy. He believed that the United States stood for something great that supported its people, which is why he wanted Americans to appreciate what they have.

Dawson said of democracy: “It is strong enough to stand up against communism any day. The population would not put up with communism.” His strong political beliefs are ostensibly why he eventually decided to finally become a citizen later on.

His Kids Stayed With Him After The Divorce

a photo of richard dawson on tv
@missallig8rr/Twitter
@missallig8rr/Twitter

After Richard Dawson and Diana Dors divorced, their sons Mark and Gary stayed back in Beverly Hills with their father when Dors moved back to England to remarry.

“The boys knew how desperately I needed them around to keep me in line… And having kids around is the greatest! No matter how unhappy or depressed you are, they’ll make it better. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, they’ll throw their arms around you and give you a hug and anything that’s bothering you disappears,” he once said.

He Loved To Shoot Pool

a photo of richard dawson in las vegas
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

One of Richard Dawson’s hobbies back in the day was shooting pool. In 1966, he told Eugene Register Guard that he converted one of the five bedrooms at his estate into a pool room. He acquired an antique pool table from actor Tommy Noonan and had since spent many of his days shooting pool.

Of course, he quipped that he would spend hours shooting pool but not hustling his friends. We’re sure that was a bit of a white lie on his part.