In 1961 the then-reigning British sex bomb, Diana Dors, directed her incumbent husband to "check out" a local L.A. talk show seeking to book her. Richard Dawson ambled over and brazenly told the producers he was unimpressed, allowing "as how I'd had the most successful show in London for seven years. Of course," Richard now recounts, "I didn't even know what a talk show was, much less having hosted one. But the upshot was Diana did the show, and I co-hosted it for 13 months." The rest is hysteria. Dawson parlayed that gig ultimately into supporting roles on Hogan's Heroes, the original Laugh-In and The New Dick Van Dyke Show and now, at 45, he headlines TV's hottest new game show, Family Feud. Last summer, when a lot of kids and husbands were home, it was the highest-rated series on all daytime, game or soap.
"I'm a hustler," he admits. "I'm a smartass, but I love people." That's the perfect job description for the host of Family Feud, a Goodson-Todman artifice in which competing extended families try to guess not the single correct but the most predictable answer to questions as determined by a sample beforehand. (For example, if the category is "persons named White," the contestant would accrue the most points guessing a pop figure like Betty or Snow and would be penalized for picking an obscurer White like essayist E.B. or Supreme Court Justice Byron.) Dawson is boyishly warm, bussing female contestants without being smarmy, but can also be insultingly flippant—all of which makes him the most popular guest panelist on other shows this side of Paul Lynde. Counting his regular status on CBS's Match Game and his new suppertime syndicated version of Family Feud, Richard figures "about 30 million people see me every week—I'm a happy man."
Maybe so, but Dawson is also an emotionally battered loser of his own family feud. Ten years ago he was demolished when wife Diana walked out on him and their two sons and eventually wound up with a younger man. "I went into a 14-month funk," he remembers. "I absolutely wallowed in self-pity. People looked down their noses at Diana for leaving me with two young boys," he goes on. "But it was an act of sheer kindness. I don't know what would have happened to me without them." He still totes enough of a torch to keep her pictures on the walls of their original Benedict Canyon home and to send flowers faithfully every birthday (her latest was No. 45). "I always thought there would be another lady after Diana," he says, "but it just hasn't worked out that way."
The easy psychodiagnosis is that Dawson is still on the rebound from his impoverished childhood in the English village of Gosport, where his mother worked in a munitions plant and his father drove a moving van. At 14 Dawson "looked around at the other blokes who had families young and never left town. I wanted more." So he put to sea. With typical guile, Dickie won almost $5,000 in shipboard boxing matches ("I always went for the stomach") and finally blundered into acting in order to meet birds. At one audition in London, Dawson passed himself off as a famous Canadian comedian until he fell headlong into the footlights. Eleven months later, Dawson boasts, he was writing his own material and playing the Palladium.
Hired next to doctor an act for Dors, Dawson found beneath her "brassy" image "a vulnerable, sweet, frightened girl. I fell madly, hopelessly in love." They married in singer Fran Warren's apartment in New York witnessed by friends like Steve Allen. That led to one of the formative ideological experiences of his life, Diana's 36-hour delivery of their first son. "Waiting out her labor made me a lifetime women's libber," he swears.
Though a self-described "bleeding-heart liberal" (who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma) and PTA radical ("I abhor grades—if a child does his best, that's all that should be asked"), Dawson is cashing in. With a yearly income of $250,000, he's outfitted himself with every gadget known to mammon—video recorders, a full gym, a Jacuzzi and a Hobie 16 sailboat. He plays tennis on the court of comedian friend Dick Martin up the street. "I've got plenty of spending money," he sighs. "The only thing missing is a lady to share it with."
He also has the time, taping only every other week and devoting the rest to moonlighting scripts (he wrote a dozen or so for Hogan's Heroes). The latest, says TV's King Con, is a pilot "in which I'd play a detective hampered only by his own humanity." But what's Dickie Dawson really running for? "I wish I knew," he says. "I don't want to end up, after the boys have gone, a little off my head, playing racquetball against the fireplace."