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A Final Word on Mike Douglas, Talk-Show Pioneer

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Long time television host Mike Douglas died today at the age of 81. He was admitted to a hospital yesterday, no cause of death has been announced. Douglas hosted a syndicated television show for 22 years with a genial approach that drew millions of viewers each afternoon.

NPR's David Folkenflik has this remembrance.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Before David Letterman was a gleam in an Indianapolis TV news director's eye The Mike Douglas Show was a place Americans enjoyed seeing the celebrities they knew well.

MIKE DOUGLAS, Host:

And there's a song, would you please do it for us? Please?

FOLKENFLIK: The singer was Judy Garland.

JUDY GARLAND: What's the name of this song again?

GARLAND: Somewhere over the rainbow.

FOLKENFLIK: Douglas also introduced performers most of his viewers had never encountered like Gene Simmons in 1974 in the early days of Kiss.

DOUGLAS: Why the costume? Why the costume?

FOLKENFLIK: Douglas' popularity also drew prominent politicians who submitted to his gentle prodding. Richard Nixon talked to him in 1968, 10 months before winning the White House.

DOUGLAS: Would you pull our boys out of Vietnam if - if you were president of the United States?

RICHARD NIXON: No I wouldn't. I wouldn't pull our boys out of Vietnam at this point because -

FOLKENFLIK: In all, Douglas interviewed seven former sitting or future presidents. It was a long way from his beginnings. Douglas was born Michael Delaney Dowd in Chicago in 1925 and served in the Navy during World War II. When he got out of the service the aspiring singer joined Kay Kaiser's College of Musical Knowledge, a popular radio show. Kaiser dubbed him Mike Douglas. And Douglas went on to give voice to Prince Charming in Walt Disney's 1950 Cinderella. In 1961 the big band singer got his own talk show in Cleveland though it later moved to Philadelphia. He attracted viewers through his embrace of a Midwestern Mr. Nice Guy affability. Even describing himself as a square. But Douglas brought on such radicals as Malcolm X and the anti-war protestor Jerry Rubin and famously teamed up with celebrity co-hosts each week. On this week in 1972 it was John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Douglas prepped them for a musician who had been on the show before.

JOHN LENNON: He decided to play a musical number and his instrument was meat.

DOUGLAS: Very interesting.

LENNON: He played meat. He'd go along with Yoko, she conducted an orchestra with an apple by eating an apple everyday.

DOUGLAS: Really?

LENNON: They should do a gig.

FOLKENFLIK: Douglas later wrote that he saw the program as a music show with conversation and laughter in between numbers. He was forced from his show in 1980 and finally retired in 1983. Douglas and his rivals, Dina Shore and Merv Griffin were starting to be upstaged by a brasher form of talk that evolved into trash TV. Mike Douglas died today on his 81st birthday.

David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.