Top of His Game

updated 11/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

LAST SPRING RICHARD DAWSON, longtime star of stage, screen and Family Feud, took his little girl, Shannon, 4, to Father-Daughter Day at her preschool in Brentwood, Calif. He listened as the other kids announced that their daddies were doctors, lawyers and producers, then managed a tight grin when Shannon popped up and said, "My daddy always stays home, because he doesn't have a job."

So the doting, embarrassed dad took Shannon home and played her a video of pop at work as the host of Family Feud. It was the April 6, 1981, show where he first met and kissed Mommy, then Gretchen Johnson, a Feud contestant. (Shannon's reaction: "Why are you kissing all those other ladies?")

All the reminiscing started Dawson, now 61, thinking about the good old days (1977-85) when he was the host-cum-kissing-bandit of one of the most popular game shows in TV history. So, when his manager again asked Dawson if he would consider returning to the syndicated show—which had gone into a slump—Dawson agreed to talk.

Now, a tad plumper and a lot happier, with a new family of his own, Dawson is back onboard at Feud, but in its first two months the show, seen in 138 markets, has been preempted so often by O.J. Simpson coverage that it has been hard to measure the success of his return in the ratings. "Richard's a master at coming up with a quip that becomes the coda to an interview or the intro to a commercial," says Chester Feldman, Feud's executive producer. "He's faster than ever." This time around the show is doubly familial: Dawson's son Gary, 32 (from Dawson's first marriage, to actress Diana Dors), is now his producer. (Son Mark, 34, is a video producer.)

Though the patented Dawson style—buttery charm salted with snappy patter—is still evident on Feud, the aging host is keeping his lips to himself, saying, At most, I hug or hold hands." That forbearance may quiet his critics. What did they call him? "I believe the word is 'smarmy,' " Dawson says with a grin. "Yes, that's it: 'Smarmy.' "

Dawson always acted the part of the good sport before his persecutors; he even played, yes, a smarmy game-show host in Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1987 film The Running Man. Still, it's best not to poke Dawson too hard, or he just might, even now, poke back. He began his life on the streets of the coastal town of Gosport, England. His father moved furniture and his mother was a munitions worker. At 17 he shipped out on a Cunard passenger liner and, after a turn around the globe, returned to England and became involved in a repertory theater company in London. By the mid-'50s he was playing the Paladium theater as a comic. Then he met the voluptuous Dors—Britain's answer to Marilyn Monroe—and the two married in 1958 and moved to Los Angeles in 1962. (The marriage broke up in 1967 when Dors left Dawson for a younger man.)

In Hollywood, Dawson began landing movie roles (1965's King Rat) and played Cpl. Peter Newkirk on TV's Hogan's Heroes (1965-71). In 1977 he was tapped for the host slot on Feud. Four years later, on that April 6, he kissed Gretchen Johnson, a San Diego education major who was on the show with her folks and two sisters, and who warmly kissed him back. "I thought he was sweet," recalls Gretchen, now 39, "but it was frankly all I could do to concentrate on playing the game." The Johnson family left $12,659 richer, and Gretchen had an invitation to a home-cooked gourmet dinner chez Dawson. She and Dawson soon began dating, moved in together a few years later and wed three years ago when Shannon was a year old. (Romancing a contestant on the show broke no taboos. "A number of men here met their wives on the show," says Feldman.)

Now Dawson has a solid marriage, the daughter he has always wanted and another shot at the job he loves, coaxing and cuddling plain folk to winnings on Feud. Relaxing in his dressing room, he says, "I'm generally on the side of the contestant, and I don't mind being blatant about it. People think I'm being a smart-ass, a cynic, but I've always rooted for the underdog." He laughs. "I've bet on everyone who ever fought Mike Tyson. I kept losing until he was knocked out by Buster Douglas in Japan. Then I raked it in!" Dawson laughs again, then watches fondly as Shannon scampers off to play with her older brothers. "I may be smarmy," he says, "but I must be doing something right."

F.X. FEENEY in Los Angeles

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