Appreciation: Richard Dawson brought a bit of England to America
The career of Richard Dawson, who died Sunday at age 79, breaks down, broadly speaking, into two not unrelated parts, each of which displayed and depended upon a certain roguish, vaguely foreign charm. American audiences first got to know him as Cpl. Peter Newkirk on the prisoners-of-war sitcom "Hogan's Heroes"; later we grew to love him as the first and still most famous host of "Family Feud" for the entirety of its first run (1976-85) and for the final season of its second (1994-95), after which he retired from show business.
The mid-1960s was a good time to be English in America. (Even if you were only halfway so: the British-born Dawson's father was American.) It was the age of the Beatles and Bond, and to my own impressionable eye, this made Dawson's Newkirk (even more than star Bob Crane's Col. Hogan) the most attractive member of the cast. (I was little enough to take its nonsense seriously.) There was a knowingness to the character that was not quite a naughtiness, a Cockney cocksureness, a streak of larceny appealingly turned to heroic ends.
These qualities Dawson imported, because they may have in some way been native to him, into his post-"Hogan" career, first as a cast member on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In," already in progress, and then on the deceptively hip '70s version of "Match Game," where the contest itself was less the point than the loose banter of the panelists. Then came "Family Feud" -- perhaps the most American of great American game shows, with its contestants representing unity and diversity -- where he dispensed innumerable kisses and compliments and kept order with a gently ironic edge.
Apart from "Hogan," Dawson's other acting appearances, which included several episodes of the underrated "The New Dick Van Dyke Show" and a dark inversion of his "Family Feud" persona in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi film "The Running Man," were few; a psych-pop single, "Apples and Oranges," from 1967, led nowhere, but it remains an interesting artifact of its time.
He was above all a television personality, which has sometimes been described as "being famous for nothing" but in fact requires a particular set of talents, by no means easy to come by: quickness, confidence and the ability to be amusing, accessible and alive on a TV screen. The sort of programs in which Dawson specialized for most of his career are those in which viewer and viewed are at their least remote, where living room and stage set become a single shared space: You don't watch these shows so much as hang out in them.
He has sometimes been compared to Groucho Marx, whose "You Bet Your Life" he once was briefly set to revive -- but his bearing, in his later years especially, reminded me more of a friendlier, happier W.C. Fields. Respecting the game while not taking it too seriously, maintaining control without superiority, mocking without derision, intelligence without ostentation -- these are the qualities that defined Richard Dawson and keep him fresh in memory.
Image: Richard Dawson hosts "Family Feud" in 1978. Credit: Associated Press