As the long time host of Family Feud, Richard Dawson must have kissed thousands of contestants. “It started out as a one-time thing,” his son Mark Dawson tells Closer. “A girl came on who was very nervous. Dad told her, ‘I am going to give you a little kiss for luck, like my mom used to do for me.’ Then the next family came out and asked for a kiss, too.”
The empathy that prompted Richard to deliver those good-luck kisses every show, along with his debonair charm, common-sense wisdom and rapid-fire wit, made him one of America’s best-loved television personalities — and a beloved father to his three children, sons Mark and Gary and daughter Shannon.
“If I could handpick all the qualities I wanted in a father, I could not have chosen anyone better,” Mark says. “He did all the normal father things, but he was also my best friend and my life coach.”
Growing up in humble circumstances in a British shipbuilding town made Richard a lifelong champion of the underdog. “He worked as a bus conductor, a fishmonger and a waiter on the Cunard Line,” recalls Mark, who notes that even after his father became famous, he didn’t cultivate celebrity friends. “Most of his male friends had regular jobs. He used to say that was because celebrities don’t care about anyone but themselves.”
Richard entered show business as a standup comedian but became known to American audiences on Hogan’s Heroes, which ran from 1965 to 1971. His run on that World War II-set comedy coincided with his divorce from British actress Diana Dors. “He could have easily just said, ‘Well, you take the kids.’ He was just starting to make a name with Hogan’s, but he fought for us,” Mark recalls. “It was like, ‘You can leave, but the boys are staying with me.’”
In the early 1970s, Richard joined Match Game as a panelist and became a fan favorite. It led to a hosting gig on Family Feud in 1976. The show was a breakout hit from the start, but it also drew controversy. “Some people were up in arms because he kissed black women,” recalls Mark, who remembers a big sponsor threatening to pull its advertising. “He was outraged!”
Instead of capitulating, Richard asked Feud’s viewers to weigh in. The votes amounted to 14,600 to 704 in favor of Richard continuing to kiss contestants. “My father believed that if there was injustice, he wanted to bring attention to it,” Mark says. “He opened my eyes to all of that.”
As a parent, Richard preferred to reason with his kids instead of punish them. “He would discipline us by saying, ‘You’ve really disappointed me.’ Never, ever were we hit,” Mark says. The star also passed on valuable advice. “He told me, ‘Go through life unscathed,’” says Mark. “He meant that life is too short. Be happy, have fun, make the best of it and go through life unscathed.”
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