Chuck Barris, ‘Gong Show’ Host Who Put Dating on TV, Dies at 87

  • Television revolutionary created formats that lasted decades
  • Barris died of natural causes at home in Palisades, New York

Chuck Barris, the U.S. television producer who pioneered program formats that put ordinary people in embarrassing situations on “The Dating Game” and “The Gong Show” during the 1960s and ’70s, has died. He was 87.

Barris died of natural causes Tuesday afternoon at his home in Palisades, New York, the Associated Press reported, citing his publicist Paul Shefrin.

Chuck Barris

Source: Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

Recognizable to a generation of Americans, the zany host of “The Gong Show” showcased amateur acts notable for an absence of talent and the participants’ willingness to make themselves look foolish. Billed as “everybody’s chance at the big time,” it featured performances that could be terminated as soon as one of three celebrity judges struck the gong, a large metallic disc that emits a crashing sound.

From a woman playing the cello while wearing scuba-diving fins, to a man in a clown’s wig singing with a lizard up his nose, the acts became more absurd each week. Barris danced around on stage, clapped his hands after each joke and had his eyes half-closed much of the time. After airing “The Popsicle Twins,” a racy performance that featured two young women licking popsicles in a suggestive manner, “The Gong Show” was canceled in 1978.

‘On Drugs’

“I was never on drugs, but everybody thought I was,” Barris said in a 2010 interview with the Television Academy Foundation. “When they saw ‘The Gong Show’ and I would come out, they all thought I was whacked out of my mind.”

Barris had already been successful as the producer of “The Dating Game,” which presented three male candidates hidden behind a screen for a female contestant to choose among, based on their answers to often-lewd questions. It ran on ABC from 1965 until 1973, sometimes twice a day, before going into syndication and spawning similar shows. The winning couple received a free trip abroad.

“The Newlywed Game,” a sister program that ran on ABC from 1966 to 1974, was another Barris hit. Couples were grilled about aspects of their private lives to see how well they knew each other. The program made “whoopie” a household euphemism as its host probed husbands and wives about their lovemaking sessions.

Real People

“He was the first one that said, ‘OK, the most entertaining people in the world are those people at home. Let’s go make them stars,’” Bob Eubanks, a host of “The Newlywed Game,” said in the 2006 documentary “The Chuck Barris Story.”

Barris, whose company was broadcasting 27 half-hour shows weekly at his peak, was considered a television revolutionary for creating program formats that lasted for decades and sowing the seeds of reality television by showing everyday Americans on primetime TV. “The Dating Game” is often compared to “The Bachelor,” which premiered on ABC in 2002.

Barris, who wrote about half a dozen books, intrigued fans when he wrote that he was a CIA assassin in the 1984 book “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” which was adapted for a 2002 film directed by George Clooney. While the claims in his “unauthorized autobiography” were greeted with skepticism, Barris refused to confirm or deny in interviews that the story about his double life was fact or fiction.

Early Years

Charles Hirsch Barris was born on June 3, 1929, in Philadelphia. His father, Nathaniel, was a dentist and his mother, Edith Cohen, was a homemaker. His sister, Rita Francis Barris, became a writer, according to the Television Academy Foundation interview.

Barris attended Drexel University, in Philadelphia, where he wrote a column for the student newspaper. He spent summers working in his grandfather’s clothing store, and after graduation moved to Pittsburgh to work for U.S. Steel.

“My ambition came from my great fear of ever ending up in that clothing business,” he said.

Barris moved to New York and worked as a page at NBC, where he was accepted for its management-training program after using top industry executives as bogus references on his resume, he said in the interview. He then landed a job with Dick Clark on “American Bandstand” in Philadelphia. Barris also became a pop-music producer, writing the 1962 hit “Palisades Park” for singer Freddy Cannon.

Switching to daytime programming at ABC, Barris developed game shows in Los Angeles. He founded Chuck Barris Productions in 1965. His shows included “The Parent Game,” “The $1.98 Beauty Show” and “Three’s a Crowd.” After selling his company in 1987, he moved to St. Tropez, France, where he lived for a decade.

Barris was married three times. His first wife, Lyn Levy, was the niece of CBS founder William Paley. He divorced his second wife, Robin Altman, in 1999 after almost 20 years of marriage. Barris married his third wife, Mary Rudolph, in 2000. Della, his daughter from the first marriage, died of a drug overdose in 1998 at age 36.

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