June 4, 2012

Richard Dawson, R.I.P.

Most people probably knew Richard Dawson from Family Feud, and before that Match Game.  He was the go-to celebrity on Match Game, so much so that the producers changed the rules of the game to keep from having the contestants choose him every time it came to the final match.  It was said that Dawson resented this, having grown accustomed to being the star.  After that, hosting his own game show would have been an inevitability.

It is said, however, that somewhere in the world Hogan’s Heroes is always being shown, and that is how I would prefer to remember Richard Dawson.  I’ve alluded in the past to my love of Hogan’s Heroes, probably my favorite situation comedy of all time; it may be fashionable today (as it was in the day) to criticize the show for finding humor in a questionable situation, but in real life there’s always been a thin line between comedy and tragedy, and I always thought Hogan’s Heroes came down on the correct side of that line.

Hogan’s Heroes was smart, clever and very funny, and one of the smartest, cleverest, and funniest in the cast was Richard Dawson. When the show was first being assembled, he was apparently in contention for the lead role, before it was decided (sensibly, I think) that the star should be an American. I don’t know if this bothered Dawson - some said it did - but it really couldn't have been any other way; an American show on an American network needed an American lead, and anyway Dickie Dawson turned out pretty well in the end, didn't he?

Playing Corporal Peter Newkirk gave Dawson a chance to display his talents – the smart-aleck, the card-shark, the lady-killer, the impressionist, and the hint, just under the surface in those times when Hogan dipped into a more serious vein, of a cold-blooded soldier ready to carry out whatever orders he was given. Hogan was an ensemble show that depended mainly on three stars: Hogan, Klink (Werner Klemperer) and Schultz (John Banner), and a well-oiled supporting cast. And one couldn’t ask for a better cast of secondary heroes than Robert Clary, Ivan Dixon, Larry Hovis and Dawson. They worked brilliantly, both together and individually. Without them, I don’t think the show would have worked as well, even with the strong star turns of the big three. And now they’re almost all gone – only Robert Clary still survives from that magnificent cast.

Before I go, one other memory of Dawson – his essentially autobiographical turn as a smarmy game show host in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Running Man, I liked it not only because it was a wonderful self-parody of his image as a backstage tyrant/oily glad-hander, but because we got to see him act again.  So what if he was playing himself, or a character very much like him?  For everything else he did, Richard Dawson was still an actor, one who have his fans a great deal of pleasure - and that’s how I prefer to remember him. TV  

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