The Life of Richard Dawson, The Kissing Bandit

Witty, charming, and unapologetically snarky, Richard Dawson is best known for being the host of the popular game show Family Feud from 1976 until 1985. The British actor was also seen on the memorable sitcom Hogan’s Heroes before becoming a game show staple.

Richard Dawson / Richard Dawson / Richard Dawson / Mark Dawson, Shannon Dawson.
Source: Getty Images

A lovable yet controversial guy, Dawson often kissed the female participants of Family Feud. His kissing antics were frowned upon at times, but he couldn’t have cared less. In fact, Dawson pretty much stuck up the middle finger to whomever disapproved of his bold behavior. At the end of the day, this was what made people appreciate him all the more. Here’s a glimpse into his life.

He Ran Away from Home as a Teen

Colin Lionel Emm (Richard Dawson’s birth name) was born a little before the Second World War on November 20th, 1932, in the town of Gosport, Hampshire in England. During the war, his family was evacuated from their home to escape the bombings. For that reason, his school attendance was sporadic, and he never received a complete education.

A portrait of Richard Dawson.
Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

At just 14 years old, Richard ran away from home and joined the British Merchant Navy. After his Navy career ended, he adopted the stage name Dickie Dawson and kicked off a career in comedy.

Dawson First Became Famous in America for Hogan’s Heroes

Long before Richard Dawson became the lovable host of Family Feud, he starred as Royal Air Force Cpl. Peter Newkirk on the memorable ’60s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, which centered on a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany during World War II. After the show ended, he made his transition to game shows.

A still of Richard Dawson in Hogan’s Heroes.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Paramount Pictures

Throughout the ’60s, game shows were all the rage and often featured famous contestants. Despite dropping out of school at a young age, Richard Dawson had wide general knowledge about a variety of topics. As a result, he became a popular contestant, adored for his brilliance and charming personality.

He Won Them Over With His Personality

When he finished working on Hogan’s Heroes, Richard Dawson joined the famous panel of the game show Match Game. The quiz show involved a group of participants who needed to match their responses to a fill-in-the-blank question with those on the board.

A photo of Dawson in Match Game.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

The show’s host, Gene Reyburn, along with the celebrity panel, made the show truly compelling. The panel featured a revolving cast of regular guests, including Dawson, Brett Somers, and Charles Nelson Reilly. Dawson’s witty personality really won people over. He was at times funny, at times moody, and at times totally apathetic. Fans of the show loved his “rando” expressions.

What Was the Deal With All That Kissing?

Richard Dawson made his debut as Family Feud’s first host in 1976. He was ready to audition for the show but grew confused after hearing rumors that the game show was to be hosted by Star Trek’s William Shatner.

A still of Dawson in an episode of Family Feud.
Source: YouTube

Eventually, Dawson won the part thanks to his personality, which was described as a mixture of Chuck Barris and Wink Martindale. Dawson was overtly affectionate towards the show’s female participants, regardless of their age. He earned the moniker “The Kissing Bandit.” It’s estimated that he had kissed around 20,000 women on the show.

He Kissed Them “For Luck”

In today’s day and age, it would be impossible for a game show host to smooch every single female contestant he encounters, particularly on the lips (and good thing that’s so…). However, in the ’70s, people didn’t really seem to have a problem with Dawson’s affection.

Dawson embraces a contestant in a still from the show.
Source: YouTube

Dawson later explained his habit, saying, “I kissed them for luck and love, that’s all.” Saturday Night Live later made fun of Dawson. Bill Murray played him as a creepy man who at one point gives one contestant a slap for acting frisky.

He Kissed Them Regardless of Their Color

Dawson was blind to the female participants’ age and skin color. He really didn’t have any issues sharing his affection and passion with women of all races. Yet at the time, it wasn’t really acceptable to see those public displays of affection.

Richard Dawson speaks during an interview.
Source: YouTube

Dawson once recalled in an interview, “When I first came here, Petula Clark was on a show with Nat King Cole, and he kissed her on the cheek, and 81 stations in the South canceled him. I kissed Black women daily and nightly on Family Feud for 11 years and the world didn’t come to an end, did it?”

Producers Tried to Stop the Kissing

It wasn’t long after Richard started hosting Family Feud that the show’s producers tried to put a stop to his kissing antics. The game show host later recalled that sponsors of the show were reportedly angry about Dawson kissing women without asking whether they were married or if he had their consent.

A backstage picture of Richard Dawson.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

But Richard believed their anger had to do with him kissing women of color. In an unofficial poll, the show’s viewers voted in Dawson’s favor, allowing him to keep kissing contestants. Female participants also reportedly filled out a paper that asked them if it was okay to be kissed.

40 Million Viewers Tuned In to Watch Dawson on Family Feud

After Family Feud aired, it didn’t take long for it to become one of the most popular shows on television. The premise was this: Two families compete against each other by tackling common survey questions. The concept captivated audiences, as Family Feud’s ratings were often higher than famous soap operas!

A photo of Dawson in an episode of Family Feud.
Photo by ABC Television/Fotos International/Getty Images

At the peak of the show’s popularity, Family Feud aired five times a week during the day and six times a week in the evenings. Thanks to Richard Dawson’s incredibly refreshing hosting style, it gained a status like no other game show before.

He Married a Blonde Bombshell

Richard Dawson married British actress Diana Dors (known as England’s Marilyn Monroe) in the late 1950s. He was her second husband. She married Dawson several months after her first husband passed away. Dawson and Dors ended up having two sons, Mark and Gary

A dated portrait of Richard Dawson and Diana Dors.
Photo by ullstein bild/Getty Images

Together, the happy family traveled the world, living in places like New York, London, and Hollywood. But after seven years of marriage, they parted ways. A few years later, Dors married her third husband. The poor man took his own life five months after she died of cancer in 1984.

One of His Sons Followed in His Footsteps

Richard and Dors’ son, Mark Dawson, was born in London and grew up to star in a few episodes of Family Feud along with his father. Later in his career, Mark became a writer for shows including The Price Is Right, Concentration, The Better Sex, Match Game, and Family Feud.

A photo of Diana Dors holding her newborn son.
Photo by Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

In addition to all that, Mark managed the all-female band The Iron Maidens, as well as the cover band Crabby Patty, and finally, the all-female metal band, Phantom Blue. Nowadays, he’s the CEO of Dawson, Reeves, and Zutaut Entertainment Group in LA.

His First Wife Threw Many Risqué, Adult Parties Throughout Her Lifetime

One of Diana Dors’ favorite ways to pass the time was by entertaining her friends. She began throwing wild parties while living with her first husband, Dennis Hamilton. The partygoer in her continued throughout her life until a few months before she died at the age of 53.

A picture of Diana Dors.
Photo by TV Times/Getty Images

Diana often invited young starlets and well-known celebrities to her parties, those who, like her, indulged in alcohol and drugs. Her parties often involved some X-rated action that, at times, was recorded on camera. Rumor has it that her house had a number of movie cameras lying around and she reportedly kept the movies for her personal entertainment.

He Played Alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger

Just a few years after Family Feud wrapped up, Richard Dawson put on his game show hat once again in a big-screen film alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger. They starred together in 1987’s The Running Man, where Richard plays a TV host of a show set in the future in which convicts are the participants and they attempt to escape from being killed.

A still of Dawson and Schwarzenegger in The Running Man.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The film was loosely based on Stephen King’s 1982 novel of the same title. Viewers enjoyed Richard’s acting, and film critic Roger Ebert praised his acting, stating that Richard “has at last found the role he was born to play.”

He Missed Out on the Role of a Lifetime

Richard Dawson used to appear quite frequently on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. One time, Dawson was actually considered as a replacement for Carson when the host briefly considered retiring from the business.

A dated image of Richard Dawson.
Source: Pinterest

Dawson did end up guest hosting a couple of times, including one episode in which Della Reese showed up as a guest and suffered a near-deadly aneurysm during the interview, in front of the cameras.

The Kissing Paid Off

Richard’s many kisses eventually paid off. Eventually, he met his second wife, Gretchen Johnson, when she starred on an episode of the show in May 1981 as one of the contestants. They ended up tying the knot a year after their daughter, Shannon Nicole Dawson, was born.

A photo of Richard Dawson in Las Vegas.
Photo by Denise Truscello/WireImage/Getty Images

During one episode of the show, Richard Dawson announced the birth of his daughter and showed off her picture as he greeted a contestant. That same contestant had also participated on the show Match Game a few years earlier when Dawson served as a panelist.

Dawson’s Family Feud Smooching Finally Stopped

Richard Dawson was 49 and his future bride was a young 24 years old when they first met on Family Feud. He ended up kissing his future wife four times on the lips during that episode. Dawson later recalled that he felt genuine sparks fly between them.

A still of Dawson in the show.
Source: YouTube

After the show, she handed him her number but she didn’t pick up when he called. Dawson later discovered that it was because she had undergone wisdom tooth surgery. A few weeks later, they went out on a date. In the ’90s, Dawson would give up kissing contestants out of respect for his wife and daughter. He was reported saying: “I can’t kiss any of the ladies because I promised my daughter I would only kiss Mom.”

He Tried to Bring Family Feud to Life

By the mid-1990s, Ray Combs was the host of Family Feud. However, the program’s ratings were slipping. In 1994, Richard rejoined the show to give it a little boost. He hosted it for one season before it was officially canceled in 1995.

A photo of Dawson holding a shirt of Family Feud.
Photo by Denise Truscello/WireImage/Getty Images

Then, Richard retired from Family Feud for good. The former host turned down the network’s offer to make a guest appearance on the series in 1999 when they attempted to resurrect it. Needless to say, it failed.

Dawson’s Clever Remarks

The reason Dawson was such a good talk show host (apart from the kissing), was because he always knew how to deliver a clever remark when engaging with the contestants. Years later, in an interview done in 2010, Dawson noted that he always wanted to lift the participants’ spirits.

A still from the show.
Photo by ABC Television/Fotos International/Getty Images

He would always yell “Survey says…” as the participants eagerly waited to see if the answer appeared on the board. “The thing that I loved about Feud, we froze a moment in time for these families that had never occurred before,” Dawson explained, adding that they would then give the families videotapes of the show. “That’s magic,” he stated.

He Didn’t Really Like Modern Game Shows

Richard Dawson once mentioned that modern game shows lack soul. “I don’t find any soul in those shows. I’m not being noble,” he noted. Adding a little self-mockery to the interview, he chuckled: “What a grouch. He’s turned into a grouch.”

A photo of Richard Dawson during an event.
Photo by Newsmakers/Getty Images

When questioned about how he would like to be remembered, Dawson stated: “That I did care. Probably not as much as I should. It’s easy to duck out of things, but lots of things touch me and I try to help some people… I was kind, and I was a nice person. You wouldn’t want to move if you sat next to me on the bus. Or maybe you would.”

Parting Ways With Family Feud

When Richard Dawson shot his final episode of Family Feud, the audience rose and gave him a standing ovation. The humble show host was clearly overwhelmed by the endearing gesture. He told the crowd: “Please sit down. I have to do at least 30 minutes of fun and laughter and you make me want to cry.”

A dated portrait of Richard Dawson.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dawson then added, “I’ve had the most incredible luck in my career. I never dreamed I would have a job in which so many people could touch me, and I could touch them.” Family Feud is still on the air today, with Steve Harvey as the show host.

He Was a Heavy Smoker

Richard Dawson was terribly addicted to nicotine. He used to smoke nearly four packs of cigarettes a day. He’s even seen smoking cigarettes live during some episodes of Match Game and Family Feud. Thankfully, in 1994, he finally quit smoking at the age of 64 thanks to the encouragement of his daughter, Shannon.

A still of Richard Dawson during Family Feud.
Source: Wikipedia

Tragically, despite turning his habit around, Richard Dawson was eventually diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The legendary show host passed away at the age of 79 in Los Angeles, California, in the summer of 2012. He left behind three children and four grandchildren.

He Wasn’t Afraid to Lose Sponsors

Richard Dawson wasn’t afraid to speak up on live TV. His careless speech would sometimes get him into trouble with the network, but he didn’t let it get to him. One time, a sponsor for the show threatened to back out after the show host made some remarks about Richard Nixon.

A photo of Richard Dawson.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Executives of ABC told him to stop. But instead, he went on the air the following day and addressed the sponsor, telling them that if they didn’t appreciate his Nixon jokes then they could put their money elsewhere. When ABC said they would edit out his remark, the show host threatened to quit. Eventually, he got his way.

How the Kissing Began

Dawson’s kissing antics had to begin somewhere. The show host told The Washington Post in 1978 that it started several weeks into the show. “I got to the end of the line and here was this rather darling lady about 50 or so and she was so nervous, she was a basket case,” he began explaining.

A photo of Dawson and Ulla Stromstedt backstage in Hogan’s Heroes.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

“She didn’t want to let her family down, but she had no idea at all what to say and I said, ‘I’ll do what my mom used to do,’ and I kissed her on the cheek, and she gave an answer and it was there on the board,” he explained. “Then I went over to the other family and a woman said, ‘Don’t I get a kiss, too?’ and after that, there was no stopping it.”

He Couldn’t Believe His Contestants Sometimes

Part of Richard Dawson’s joy as the host of the game show was laughing at all the bizarre answers that families blurted out under pressure. Sometimes, he just couldn’t contain himself when an answer was so absurd. During one game, he asked the participants to name an animal spelled with three letters.

A still of Dawson during the show.
Source: YouTube

One participant said “frog” which sent Richard bursting into laughter. When the participant’s brother was asked, he quickly responded with “alligator.” “They sent me silver tie clips later. One sent me a frog and one sent me an alligator,” Richard recalled.

He Loved Being Sarcastic

Richard Dawson was known for his witty comebacks and cynical remarks. Some people considered him to be quite snarky. But his form of speech was something he wasn’t willing to change.

A still of Dawson speaking at the microphone.
Source: YouTube

“I’ll do sarcastic lines just to make the contestants angry enough, so they’ll forget they’re on television and say, ‘I’ll show this (so-and-so),’ and come up with an answer,” he once recalled. Richard never felt like he needed to baby his contestants. And in fact, his attitude almost always worked!

He Helped Pioneer Diversity on Television

One thing that Richard Dawson was publicly proud of with the work the producers did on Family Feud was the fact they normalized diversity on national television. They never turned down an elder, a minority, or a handicapped contestant.

A dated portrait of Richard Dawson.
Source: Pinterest

This kind of treatment was unheard of back in those days. Dawson and the show’s producers treated every contestant the same. Most importantly, he didn’t give anyone special treatment for being a minority. This egalitarian attitude is what truly normalized the situation.

He Didn’t Feel Sorry for the Show’s Losers

Richard Dawson was definitely one of the cheekiest game show hosts of the time, smooching his contestants, spitting snarky comments, but still getting all of the people to love him anyway. Part of his attitude was exaggerated for the show, and, of course, Dawson really appreciated his fans.

Dawson speaks at the microphone.
Source: YouTube

However, he wasn’t all sentimental when it came to the game show’s participants. In fact, he didn’t actually feel too sad when he saw contestants lose. When asked how he managed to hold himself from feeling sorry for the show’s losers, he said “I don’t.”

He Made Contestants Feel Smart

Richard Dawson was known for being sarcastic towards his contestants. However, as it turned out, there was a method to his insanity. In conversation with Emmy TV Legends, he stated: “Everything about the show fit perfectly for me or how I think… Usually, I saw ‘good answer,’ in a sarcastic way.'”

A still of Dawson during an interview.
Source: YouTube

“‘Name a vegetable you have to peel to eat,'” he would tell them, “They’d say grape, and I’d say, ‘good answer’… or if I say, ‘the dictator we found again in World War II’—they’d say Otto Preminger, and I’d say ‘the Otto Preminger?’ I’d talk to them like they had made sense.”

He Took Over The Running Man

If you’ve watched 1987’s The Running Man, you’ve seen how great Richard Dawson was in it. He plays a game show host named Damon Killian and the character clearly wasn’t far off from his job in real life. What was meant to be a supporting role grew into something way more significant.

A still of Schwarzenegger and Dawson in The Running Man.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Sony Pictures

According to Steven de Souza, the movie’s screenwriter, Richard Dawson started entertaining extras on set by inviting them up to the stage and questioning them, just like he did on the game show Family Feud.

He Wasn’t Afraid of Catching Something

Richard Dawson kissed hundreds of women on Family Feud, so one might assume he ought to have eventually caught something from at least one of them. It’s estimated that on the show he kissed over 20,000 women! He clearly wasn’t afraid of catching herpes.

A photo of Richard Dawson.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Sony Pictures

He would later state that the thought never crossed his mind. He simply enjoyed the smooching without thinking of the potential consequences. One of his associates was quoted saying: “He makes two million a year, and two million buys a lot of salve.”

A “Far Out” Liberal

Due to his bold and blunt political opinions, Richard Dawson was tagged as a “far-out liberal” early on in his career. He reportedly protested for civil rights in Selma and held strong anti-communist opinions.

A dated image of Dawson and his Diana Dors talking to friends from their car.
Photo by Tony Davis/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“You tell the midwestern housewife that for the good of the state she’ll have to give up her washing machine and her electric conveniences and take to scrubbing clothes against a rock in a stream and she will have none of it. No one is going to take away her washing machine, least of all for the good of the state,” he once mentioned in a 1973 interview.

He Faked It Until He Made It

Richard’s first glimpse into the entertainment business came after his brother bet him that he would never be able to make it on stage. Then, while working as a waiter, he decided to try out for the lad in a play at a local theater.

A still of Dawson in Family Feud.
Source: Amazon

Richard was this close to giving up when he discovered that he needed to prepare actual material to audition. Thankfully, he decided to give it a shot. Young Dawson used quotes that he made up on the spot and, miraculously, ended up scoring the part!

He Lied His Way In

After starring on the Isle of Wight for two seasons, Dawson decided to up the stakes with his newfound show host career. He wrote a note to a talent booking agency in London. He lied in the letter, writing that he was a Canadian comedian on vacation looking for a few days of work.

An image of Dawson during an interview / A still of Dawson in Family Feud.
Source: Pinterest

Incredibly, the English agency fell for Richard Dawson’s fake letter and said they would hire him. The following year, the show host found himself doing shows at the Palladium. This man’s confidence and his witty way with words really did the job.

He Was a True Book Worm

According to a chat he had with the Daytona Beach Morning Journal in 1979, Richard Dawson said he was an avid reader, as well as a night owl. According to the beloved show host, the happiest moments of his days were at sunset.

A dated image from Family Feud.
Source: BBC

He didn’t fall asleep easily. So, what would he do when he was up and awake in the wee hours of the night? He usually stayed up reading and writing. He revealed that at certain times, he would read up to five books a week!

Dawson Started From the Bottom

Coming from an impoverished background, Richard Dawson had to work his way up from the very bottom. He joined the Merchant Marines at the young age of 14, where he started out as a laundry boy. Dawson kept working harder until he became a waiter.

A still of Dawson in Hogan’s Heroes.
Source: YouTube

For more money on the side, he used to get into boxing matches with his shipmates. When he transferred to a more luxurious sip, he paid the host to make sure they would give him the highest tipping guests. “I’m a street fighter and a hustler,” he was quoted saying.

He Became an American Citizen in the Mid-’80s

Richard Dawson didn’t become an American citizen until the mid-’80s. However, long before he applied to emigrate from England, Dawson had to fill out a questionnaire so that his travels to America could be approved.

A dated portrait of Richard Dawson.
Source: Pinterest

One of the questions on the list was, “Do you intend to overthrow the U.S. Government?” In response, Dawson wrote: “Sole purpose of visit.” He was then asked to come in for interrogation in front of emigration officials who asked, “Was this meant as a joke?” The host wittingly shot back, “Was the original question meant as a joke?”

Richard Dawson Had Convictions About Becoming a Citizen

Even though he was eventually granted U.S. citizenship, Richard still had some trouble with the process. Despite being involved in American politics and society throughout the majority of his career, he felt that he couldn’t deal with all responsibilities that came with the right to vote.

A dated portrait of Dawson with his family at home.
Photo by Derek Berwin/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Becoming an American citizen meant committing to defend the nation’s security and causes. At the time, the Vietnam War was raging, and Dawson was against America’s involvement. “I figure it’s better for the country to have an honest alien than a dishonest citizen. We have enough trouble already,” he reported.

He Wanted Americans to Exercise Their Rights

Even though he had his doubts about becoming a proper U.S. citizen, Richard Dawson still considered the status a very great privilege. Whenever the former host saw someone who didn’t utilize their American rights to their full capacities, he was often disappointed.

A studio portrait of Richard Dawson.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

“You don’t fully realize what opportunity you have here in America,” Dawson told The Phoenix back in 1973, “You can follow any religious teaching – any political philosophy you like.” Aware of his privilege, Dawson made sure to live life to the fullest.

He Was All for Democracy

One of the things Richard Dawson loved about America was its democratic government. He believed that the nation stood for something important and that it did a good job at supporting its people.

An image of Richard Dawson talking to the microphone.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Sony Pictures

Of democracy, he stated: “It is strong enough to stand up against communism any day. The population would not put up with communism.” Dawson’s political beliefs are likely why he decided to become an American citizen.

His Kids Remained With Him After the Divorce

After Richard Dawson and his wife Diana Dors divorced, their two sons, Mark and Gary, decided to stay in Beverly Hills with their dad while their mother moved back to England where she ended up remarrying.

Richard Dawson children speak during an interview.
Source: YouTube

“The boys knew how desperately I needed them around to keep me in line,” he stated. “And having kids around is the greatest! No matter how unhappy or depressed you are, they’ll make it better. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, they’ll throw their arms around you and give you a hug, and anything that’s bothering you disappears.”

He Enjoyed Playing Pool

One of the show host’s favorite pastimes back in the day was shooting pool. In 1966, Dawson revealed that he converted one of the bedrooms at his mansion into a pool room. He purchased an antique pool table from Tommy Noonan.

A dated picture of Richard Dawson with his children.
Source: Pinterest

After buying the vintage item, Dawson spent many of his days shooting pool. He quickly told the press that while he would spend hours around the pool table, he never hustled the friends who played with him. Hmmm… we’re not quite sure whether to believe that.

In the Heat of the Night Grappled with Hard Hitting Issues

Welcome Back, Kotter: What We Never Knew Back Then

The Set of Mork & Mindy Was Out of This World

The Stars of Dallas: Where Are They Now?

From Les to Sandy: Where’s WKRP’s Cast Now?

From Set Secrets to the 2022 Version of the Cast of CHiPs