Dawson was born in Gosport, Hampshire, England, on November 20, 1932 to Arthur and Josephine Emm. At the age of 14 he ran away from home to join the British Merchant Navy, where he pursued a boxing career. After his discharge, he pursued a comedy career using the stage name Dickie Dawson; when he reached adulthood, he revised this to become Richard Dawson. This name he would later officially legalize.
On January 8, 1963, Dawson appeared in an episode of the Jack Benny program, Season 13, Episode 15. Dawson is the audience member sitting next to Jack; almost unrecognizable because of the glasses and fake mustache. In 1963, Dawson appeared in an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show in the role of dapper entertainer “Racy Tracy” Rattigan. In 1964, he appeared in an episode of The Outer Limits titled The Invisibles. He played a soldier in the 1962 film The Longest Day. In 1965, Dawson had a small role at the end of the film King Rat, starring George Segal, playing 1st Recon paratrooper Captain Weaver, sent to liberate allied POWs in a Japanese prison. Dawson had by then moved to Los Angeles, California, where he gained fame in the television show Hogan’s Heroes as Cpl. Peter Newkirk from 1965 to 1971.
He had a minor role in Universal’s Munster, Go Home! A year later, Dawson released a psychedelic 45rpm single including the songs “His Children’s Parade” and “Apples & Oranges” on Carnation Records. In 1968, Dawson was in the film The Devil’s Brigade, as Private Hugh McDonald. Following the cancellation of Hogan’s Heroes, he was a regular joke-telling panelist on the short-lived syndicated revival of the game show Can You Top This? in 1970, alongside other comedians such as Morey Amsterdam, and Jack Carter. He was also regular on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In from 1971 to 1973, and became a regular on The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1973–74). He portrayed a theater director in the first season of McCloud and was a panelist on the 1972–73 syndicated revival of I’ve Got a Secret. He played himself in a guest appearance on The Odd Couple as a former Army pal of Felix.
After Laugh-In left the airwaves in 1973, game show pioneer Mark Goodson signed Dawson to appear as a regular on Match Game ’73, alongside Brett Somers, Charles Nelson Reilly, and host Gene Rayburn. Dawson, who had already served a year as panelist for Goodson’s revival of I’ve Got a Secret, proved to be a solid and funny gameplayer and was the frequent choice of contestants for the “Head-To-Head Match” portion of the show’s “Super-Match” bonus round, in which, after winning prize money in the “Audience Match” portion, the contestant and Dawson (or any celebrity the contestant chose) had to obtain an exact match to the requested fill-in-the-blank. During his time on Match Game he would occupy the bottom center seat. He later hosted a one-season syndicated revival of Masquerade Party in 1974; the program featured regular panelists Bill Bixby, Lee Meriwether and Nipsey Russell; the program was not renewed for a second season.
In 1975, during his tenure as one of Match Game ’s regular panelists, Dawson was hired by Goodson to host an upcoming project titled Family Feud, which debuted on July 12, 1976 on ABC’s daytime schedule. Family Feud was a breakout hit, eventually surpassing the ratings of Match Game in late 1977. In 1978, he left Match Game and won a Daytime Emmy Award for Best Game Show Host for his work on Family Feud. One of his trademarks, kissing all the female contestants, was one of the things that made the show appear to be a warm and friendly program, and he soon garnered the nickname The Kissing Bandit. On the 1985 finale Dawson explained that he kissed contestants for love and luck, something his mother did with Dawson himself as a child.
In 1983, Dawson made an appearance on Mama’s Family as himself, hosting an episode of Family Feud where the Harpers play as contestants (reuniting him with former Match Game co-panelists Betty White and Vicki Lawrence). After Dawson became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1984 he proudly showed his passport and photo during the introduction of an episode of Family Feud. He continued hosting the Feud until both editions were canceled; the syndicated version ended on May 17, 1985, and the ABC Daytime edition on June 14, 1985.
Dawson parodied his TV persona in 1987 by co-starring alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the action film The Running Man, in which he portrayed the evil, egotistical game-show host Damon Killian. Of Dawson’s performance film critic Roger Ebert (who gave the film itself thumbs down) wrote, “Playing a character who always seems three-quarters drunk, Dawson chain-smokes his way through backstage planning sessions and then pops up in front of the cameras as a cauldron of false jollity. Working the audience, milking the laughs and the tears, he is not really much different than most genuine game show hosts – and that’s the film’s private joke.”
Dawson hosted an unsold pilot for a revival of the classic game show You Bet Your Life that was to air on NBC in 1988, but the network declined to pick up the show, which would go on to attempt two more failed revivals with hosts Buddy Hackett and Bill Cosby. On September 12, 1994, Dawson returned to the syndicated edition of Family Feud, replacing and succeeding Ray Combs for what became the final season of the show’s official second run (1988–1995). Upon Dawson’s return he received a 25-second standing ovation when he walked on set. Afterwards he said, “If you do too much of that, I won’t be able to do a show for you because I’ll cry.” During the revival, he did not kiss the female contestants, because of a commitment he made to his young daughter only to kiss her mother. The final episode aired on May 26, 1995, after which Dawson officially retired. In 1999, he was asked to make a special appearance on the first episode of the current version of Family Feud, but decided to turn the offer down and have no further involvement with the show. In 2000, Dawson narrated TV’s Funniest Game Show Moments on the Fox network.
Dawson died at age 79 from complications of esophageal cancer on the night of June 2, 2012 at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. On June 7, 2012, the Game Show Network aired a 4-hour special showing some of Dawson’s greatest moments on Family Feud and on Match Game, including the first episode of Dawson’s return season. Dawson was buried at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
- November, 20, 1932
- Gosport, Hampshire, England
- June, 02, 2012
- Los Angeles, California
Cause of Death
- complications from esophageal cancer
- Westwood Memorial Park
- Los Angeles, California