Gong but Not Forgotten

updated 06/13/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/13/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

EVER THE ICONOCLAST, CHICK BARRIS IS walking—yes. walking—along Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills when a cabdriver grins and hails him. "Yo, Chuck!" he cries. "Yo, Sherman!" shouts Barris, waving back at his old friend. The familiar head of salt-and-pepper curls has gone silvery white and the leprechaun face has wizened, but the nimble eyes and merry smile are unmistakable. Barris, known to millions as the host of The Gong Show, that ultimate '70s exercise in bad taste, is back in town.

After a decade of living what he calls a happy ending in the South of France, Barris, 65, is checking reaction to The Game Show King (Carroll and Graf), a memoir of his days in showbiz that appeared a few months ago. And he has put together The Best of the Gong Show, a video anthology due in stores soon.

At the moment, Barris is headed toward a bookstore for a copy of Edith Wharton's novel The House of Mirth. An insatiable reader, he has filled the shelves of his Beverly Hills office with the works of Borges, Updike and essayist John McPhee. Just the most conspicuous sign of his old fun-loving persona is a spectacular photograph of his bikini-clad wife, Red, sunbathing. "I used to have that one in the conference room," he says, laughing, "but it was distracting everyone at meetings." These days, Barris says, "writing is what I love to do most." And he does it well: The Game Show King is an honest chronicle of his rise, which climaxed in 1976 when he became America's gongmeister.

Barris grew up in Philadelphia, the son of a dentist, Nathaniel, and a homemaker, Edith. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he moved to New York City and worked as a page at NBC. In 1959 he landed a job at ABC in the offices of American Bandstand host Dick Clark. In the aftermath of the deejay payola scandals, the network hired Barris to monitor Clark and prove to a nervous FCC that Clark was squeaky clean. Barris's deliberately overdone 500-page report confirmed that Clark was innocent, and Barris was rewarded with a position in daytime programming. (He also moonlighted as a songwriter; in 1962 his "Palisades Park," recorded by Freddie Cannon, became a hit.)

By 1965, Barris came up with The Dating Game, which featured young singles competing for dales by answering questions that often bordered on the obscene. The following year, he scored again with a postnuptial variant, The Newlywed Game. In 1968 his company went public, and throughout the '70s it pulled in $25 million a year, of which Barris netted about $14 million.

But Barris—who marched on Selma, Ala., with Martin Luther King Jr.—wanted something more. His boyhood heroes were Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ironically, after reading the megahit novel Love Story, "I thought, 'Jesus, I know I can write at least as well as that,' " he says. So in 1972 he spent six months in France writing. The result was a Salinger-esque tale of young love called You and Me Babe, which became a best-seller.

In 1976, Barris launched The Gong Show, a spoof of talent shows that quickly sank in the ratings. In a last-ditch effort to save it, he took over as host and stretched the envelope of taste to its limit. Ratings soared.

Even Barris acknowledges that The Gong Show's coup de disgrâce was the Popsicle Twins, two barefooted nymphets who salaciously licked orange cream sticks lo the tune of "I'm in the Mood for Love." During a commercial break in 1980, he muttered lo a makeup assistant: "There must be more to life than game shows." She replied, "There is." Later that year, Barris sold his company for an estimated $100 million, married his longtime girl-friend, former florist Robin Altman, and moved to Saint-Tropez. There he took up the local bowling game of boule, drank coffee with the locals and wrote the quasi-autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

Chuck and Red, 41—who legally changed her name several years ago—now divide their time among their homes in Saint-Tropez, Paris, New York City and Los Angeles. "I fell in love slowly," says Red, "because what you see at first isn't all that's there. He's shy, literate, intellectual."

Few of Barris's neighbors in the South of France have ever heard of his shows, but dubbed reruns of The Gong Show have just debuted in Germany. "I don't speak German, so I can't quite understand the reviews," he says. "But one word keeps jumping out at me: 'Dreck!' "

Now at work on a murder mystery, Barris admits that he sometimes misses the celebrity life and would "love to do a talk show." But then what he calls the bum gene kicks in—and a cautionary vision stops him from pursuing the idea. "I probably won't do it," he says. "Zsa Zsa Gabor would appear on it sooner or later, and that would mean I'd have run out of people to talk to."

F.X. FEENEY in Los Angeles

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