LOS ANGELES – Richard Dawson, the wisecracking British entertainer who was among the schemers in the 1960s TV comedy "Hogan's Heroes" and a decade later began kissing thousands of female contestants as host of the game show "Family Feud" has died. He was 79.
Dawson, also known to TV fans as the Cockney prisoner-of-war Cpl. Peter Newkirk on "Hogan's Heroes," died Saturday night from complications related to esophageal cancer at Ronald Reagan Memorial Hospital, his son Gary said.
The game show, which initially ran from 1976 to 1985, pitted families who tried to guess the most popular answers to poll questions such as "What do people give up when they go on a diet?"
Dawson won a daytime Emmy Award in 1978 as best TV game show host. Tom Shales of The Washington Post called him "the fastest, brightest and most beguilingly caustic interlocutor since the late great Groucho bantered and parried on `You Bet Your Life."' The show was so popular it was released as both daytime and syndicated evening versions.
He was known for kissing each woman contestant, and at the time the show bowed out in 1985, executive producer Howard Felsher estimated that Dawson had kissed "somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000."
"I kissed them for luck and love, that's all," Dawson said at the time.
He reprised his game show character in a much darker mood in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger film "The Running Man," playing the host of a deadly TV show set in a totalitarian future, where convicts try to escape as their executioners stalk them. "Saturday Night Live" mocked him in the 1970s, with Bill Murray portraying him as leering and nasty, even slapping one contestant (John Belushi) for getting too fresh.
The British-born actor already had gained fame as the fast-talking Newkirk in "Hogan's Heroes," the CBS comedy about prisoners in a Nazi POW camp who hoodwink their captors and run the place themselves.
Despite its unlikely premise, the show made the ratings top 10 in its first season, 1965-66, and ran until 1971.
Both "Hogan's Heroes" and "Family Feud" have had a second life in recent years, the former on DVD reissues and the latter on cable television's GSN, formerly known as the Game Show Network.
On Dawson's last "Family Feud" in 1985, the studio audience honored him with a standing ovation, and he responded: "Please sit down. I have to do at least 30 minutes of fun and laughter and you make me want to cry."
"I've had the most incredible luck in my career," he told viewers.
"I never dreamed I would have a job in which so many people could touch me and I could touch them," he said. That triggered an unexpected laugh.
Producers brought out "The New Family Feud," starring comedian Ray Combs, in 1988. Six years later, Dawson replaced Combs at the helm, but that lasted only one season.
According to the Internet Movie Database, Dawson was born Colin Lionel Emm in 1932 in Gosport, England. His first wife was actress Diana Dors, the blond bombshell who was Britain's answer to Marilyn Monroe.