Chuck Barris, 87, who grew up in Bala Cynwyd and attended Lower Merion High School and the Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University) before creating some of the 1970s' most iconic game shows (and who claimed to have acted as a CIA spy), died of natural causes Tuesday afternoon at his home in Palisades, N.Y., publicist Paul Shefrin said.
Known for classic 1960s and '70s television game shows including The Gong Show, The Dating Game, and The Newlywed Game, Mr. Barris also famously claimed to have been a CIA assassin in his book Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: An Unauthorized Biography, later made into a 2002 movie directed by George Clooney and starring Sam Rockwell as Mr. Barris.
In addition to his television work (and supposed CIA killings), Mr. Barris worked as a pop songwriter, most famously writing “Palisades Park,” a tribute to the beloved, and now long-closed, New Jersey amusement park that hit No. 3 for Freddy Cannon on the Billboard 100 in 1962.
Mr. Barris was born Charles Hirsh Barris on June 3, 1929, in Philadelphia, the son of a dentist and a homemaker. Raised in Bala Cynwyd, he graduated from Lower Merion High and attended Drexel, graduating in 1953. The school awarded Mr. Barris an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 2001.
“We will always remember Chuck for his charm, quick wit, and for making us laugh and smile,” the Lower Merion Alumni Association said in a statement. “He will be greatly missed by the Lower Merion community."
“We are proud of Chuck's accomplishments and legacy as a creative, entrepreneurial Drexel alumnus,” Cindy Leesman, associate vice president of alumni relations at Drexel, said of Mr. Barris. “Chuck was just as colorful and engaging as a Drexel student in the 1950s as he went on to be in his life and career.”
Mr. Barris got his start in entertainment as a page at NBC in New York. After being let go, he returned home to Philadelphia to work backstage at American Bandstand as a standards-and-practices man for ABC.
As the Hollywood Reporter noted, Mr. Barris’ job there was to determine if host Dick Clark engaged in payola, the practice of illegally accepting money from record companies in exchange for broadcasting their recordings. After Mr. Barris investigated Clark for a year and wrote daily memos about the show, a House subcommittee cleared Clark of any illegal activity.
ABC then sent the Philadelphia native to Los Angeles to direct daytime television. His first game show for the network, Poker People, in which celebrities had to guess the jobs of guests on the show, was, in Mr. Barris’ words, a “failure.” He later left the network to become an independent producer, launching Chuck Barris Productions in 1965.
Through that company, Mr. Barris released hits including The Dating Game, which hit the airwaves in 1966. The gimmick: A young female questions three males, hidden from her view, to determine which would be the best date. Sometimes the process was switched, with a male questioning three females. But in all cases, the questions were designed by the show's writers to elicit sexy answers.
After the show became a hit on both daytime and nighttime TV, the Barris machine accelerated. New products included The Newlywed Game, The Parent Game, The Family Game, and The Game Game.
Mr. Barris’ success in television led to the self-bestowed moniker “The King of Daytime Television.” Critics, however, called Mr. Barris “The Baron of Bad Taste,” “The Ayatollah of Trasherola,” and “The King of Schlock.”
In 1980, Mr. Barris broke into the motion-picture world with The Gong Show Movie, an R-rated take on his show. A massive flop, the film was pulled from theaters after only a week.
Afterward, a distraught Mr. Barris checked into a New York hotel and wrote his autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, in two months. In it, he claimed to have been a CIA assassin.
The book was widely dismissed by disbelievers who said the creator of some of television's most lowbrow game shows had allowed his imagination to run wild when he claimed to have spent his spare time traveling the world, quietly rubbing out enemies of the United States.
"It sounds like he has been standing too close to the gong all those years," CIA spokesman Tom Crispell said. "Chuck Barris has never been employed by the CIA, and the allegation that he was a hired assassin is absurd."
Mr. Barris later released follow-ups, in 1993, with The Game Show King: A Confession; in 2004, with Bad Grass Never Dies; and in 2010, with Della: A Memoir of My Daughter, about his only child, who died at age 36 of a drug overdose in 1998.
Mr. Barris left Hollywood in the 1980s, moving to Saint-Tropez in the south of France, where he stayed in what the Los Angeles Times described in 2002 as “self-imposed exile” for the better part of two decades. He would later sell his shares in his TV production company to Burt Sugarman, a TV producer known for Celebrity Sweepstakes and The Richard Pryor Show.
Back in the news in 2002 to help publicize the film of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Mr. Barris said his shows were a forerunner to today's popular reality TV series.
"I think anything would have been possible without my shows," Mr. Barris told the A.V. Club in a 2003 interview. "I think The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game began the momentum for what eventually became Fear Factor, The Jerry Springer Show, Joe Millionaire, and so on. But if I wasn't there, somebody else would have been."
Mr. Barris, whose first two marriages ended in divorce, is survived by his wife, Mary. According to Deadline, donations in Mr. Barris’ name can be made to the New York Police Foundation in lieu of flowers.
This article contains information from the Associated Press.