Chuck Barris, game show pioneer and movie subject, dead at 87

Chuck Barris, who took game shows to riotous new levels with a trio of hits in the 1960s and 1970s and whose life — more or less — was the subject of a 2002 motion picture, has died.

Barris put a sly spin on staid game shows and The Gong Show's bad acts predated the reality TV boom

Chuck Barris is shown promoting his book The Big Question on May 14, 2007 in Los Angeles. The game show pioneer, who also wrote several books and a hit song, has died at age 87. (Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)

Chuck Barris, who took game shows to riotous new levels with a trio of hits in the 1960s and 1970s and whose life — more or less — was the subject of a 2002 motion picture, has died.

Barris died of natural causes at age 87 on Tuesday afternoon at his home in Palisades, N.Y, according to publicist Paul Shefrin, who announced the death on behalf of Barris's family.

Barris created a number of game shows, hitting it big with The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show, which he hosted.

In the 1984 book Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: An Unauthorized Autobiography, he said that between his high-profile gigs throughout his career he was a paid hitman for the CIA.

After many fits and starts in Hollywood, the book was turned into the 2002 motion picture, scripted by Charlie Kaufman, directed by George Clooney and starring Sam Rockwell as Barris.

Chuck Barris and George Clooney at the premiere of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind in Los Angeles on Dec. 11, 2002. P (Kevin Winter/ImageDirect/Getty)

Barris for the first decade of his showbiz career worked in a variety of jobs, including behind the scenes on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. He also tried his hand at songwriting, with Freddy Cannon taking his Palisades Park to No. 3 on the U.S. pop chart in 1962.

The Dating Game debuted in 1965 on ABC, with contestants grilling three prospective suitors on their likes and dislikes, filled with suggestive questions and double entendres. Jim Lange, who died in 2014, was the original host.

The first run lasted eight years, but the show was revived on other occasions into the 1990s. The likes of Tom Selleck, Suzanne Somers and Steve Martin were among a number of future celebrities who appeared as contestants. So did Rodney Alcala, who, it was learned years later, was a serial killer who had already murdered victims by the time of his 1978 appearance on the show.

The Newlywed Game, hosted by Bob Eubanks, began its run a year after the The Dating Game, and was also a long-running success. The barbed humour remained, with the show featuring married couples who quite often didn't know each other very well.

'The Baron of Bad Taste'

Barris decided to take a turn in front of the camera with The Gong Show in 1976, his most divisive successful show. The show featured amateur talent acts, often atrocious, who tried to avoid the gong of celebrity judges.

It was patterned after the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, a radio hit in the 1930s, with the gong the show's equivalent of vaudeville's hook. The victims would then be mercilessly berated by the often manic Barris.

Regular acts included Gene the Dancing Machine and the paper-bagged Unknown Comic, who in reality was Canadian standup Murray Langston.

The show courted controversy on more than one occasion, including 1978's Have You Got a Nickel act, which consisted entirely of two teenaged girls licking popsicles, a segment that never aired in the Central and Pacific time zones. In another incident, judge Jaye P. Morgan flashed the audience.

He revelled in the attention but critics branded him "The King of Schlock" or "The Baron of Bad Taste."

By early 1980, Chuck Barris Productions boasted revenues of over $30 million US, according to a New York Times article, but that was around the time his TV empire had started to fade.

Recent offerings had been failures, including The $1.98 Beauty Show, which lampooned pageants, and 3's A Crowd, described by one TV writer as "the sleazy game show that tried to find out if wives or secretaries knew a businessman best."

That year, the Gong Show Movie was expectedly a critical failure, but also a commercial flop.

Barris sold his company for a reported $100 million.

Barris would write five other books, including the 2007 satirical novel The Big Question, in which game show contestants experience the ultimate extremes depending on their answers, and the 2010 remembrance Della: A Memoir of My Daughter, about his only child, who died at age 36 in 1998 after battling drug addiction.

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. He graduated from the Drexel Institute of Technology in 1953 before embarking on his strange, successful career.

Barris's marriages to Lynn Levy — the mother of Della — and Robin Altman ended in divorce. He married his third wife, Mary, in 2000.

With files from The Associated Press


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.