Sunday, June 3, 2012

Hero Turned Kissing Bandit

I know I'm in the minority, but when I think of Richard Dawson, the scrapbook in my head calls up images from his days as Corporal Peter Newkirk in the hit show "Hogan's Heroes."

That's not normal, I know. Most people remember Dawson, who died yesterday at age 72 from complications of esophageal cancer, as the cheery, kissy-face host of the game show, "The Family Feud."

But "Heroes" was one of my favorite shows growing up. I loved the theme song, the opening credits, and the fact that it aired on Friday nights. As a kid, anything associated with Friday was a good thing.

And I liked Dawson as Cpl. Newkirk, who was the sheister among Hogan's "heroes." Dawson's character picked locks, lifted wallets, practiced sleight of hand and was the group's bookie, among other nefarious things.

Dawson was a Brit, the son of an American mother and a British father. His birth name was Colin Lionel Emm. He ran away from home at age 14 to join the Merchant Marines, but abandoned that as well to pursue a career in comedy---under the name Dickie Dawson, of which he would change the first name to Richard.

In "Hogan's Heroes," Dawson displayed the cool, mellow persona that he would tap into later on as arguably the most popular panelist on "Match Game" and as the host of "Family Feud."

In both game shows, Dawson became a Kissing Bandit.

For whatever reason, Dawson had a fetish for kissing female contestants---young and old; big and small; pretty and plain. And the women loved kissing him back. The kissy face stuff started on "Match Game," when Dawson (famously occupying the middle seat on the bottom row) doled out smooches to female contestants after their game ended.

But it was on "Feud" where Dawson's kissing fetish became most famous. As host, Dawson and his counterpart on "The Price is Right," Bob Barker, were frequently hugged, attacked and, in Dawson's case, kissed by exuberant women who appeared to be more excited to meet the male hosts than to actually win cash and prizes.

A TV host today couldn't get away with the kissing that Dawson did as "Feud" host (1976-85). His kisses were on the lips, after all. Frankly, watching it today, on reruns, is a little uncomfortable. though it wasn't like Dawson French kissed the contestants.

But back to "Hogan's Heroes."


Dawson as Cpl. Newkirk in "Hogan's Heroes" (1965-71)


 
Dawson was part of a rich ensemble that bobbed at or near the top of the ratings from 1965-71. Set during WWII, Colonel Hogan and his group of American, French and British POWs made a mockery of the likes of Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz on a weekly basis. It was sort of like "Gilligan's Island"---ensemble cast is stuck in a place from which it will never escape, yet manages to engage in hijinks and get involved in mild intrigue and danger every week.

Sadly, Dawson's involvement with "Heroes" and star Bob Crane has a dark footnote.

It was Dawson who introduced Crane to John Henry Carpenter, who worked with the video department at Sony Electronics and who had access to early video tape recorders. In later years, Carpenter, who photographed some of Crane's sexual escapades with various women, would be implicated (and acquitted) in Crane's murder (still unsolved).

On "Match Game," Dawson was almost always picked by the contestants (male and female) to match them in each game's finale. I don't know what the official statistics show, but it seemed that Dawson had some sort of ESP with the contestants; his winning percentage, I bet, was over .500.

I won't digress into a history of  Dawson and "Feud" here; chances are I won't be telling you anything that you don't already know.

Anyhow, this is more about Dawson on "Hogan's Heroes," a show that was groundbreaking, in that it was the first one that made fun of WWII, or war in general. The ensemble cast became a group of friends that we invited into our living rooms every week, much like other famous casts ("M*A*S*H"; "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"; etc).

And Dawson played no minor role in the show's success. Before his lips became more famous than the rest of him.

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