Chuck Barris, the “Gong Show” creator, songwriter and novelist who sought to add to his already eclectic résumé with a made-up — or was it? — story about being an assassin for the C.I.A., died on Tuesday at his home in Palisades, N.Y. He was 87.
His death was announced by a spokesman, Paul Shefrin.
“The Gong Show” was just one of Mr. Barris’s hit game show creations. In the 1960s he came up with “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game,” making a spectacle of his contestants’ romantic yearnings in the first case and their honeymoon-period bliss, adjustments and foibles in the second.
Mr. Barris might have earned a brief mention in the obituary pages with one of his earliest accomplishments: He wrote the pop song “Palisades Park,” which became a hit for Freddy Cannon in 1962 and an emblem of that period of good-time rock ’n’ roll just before the genre’s harder, louder side emerged.
Decades later, in 2007, Mr. Cannon, a Massachusetts native, wanted to rework the song into a rally ditty for his favorite baseball team, the Boston Red Sox. But, he told The Boston Globe, he received a complaint from Mr. Barris, a Yankee fan, and so “Down at Fenway Park” ended up being a Cannon original rather than a repurposed Barris.
Mr. Barris wrote “Palisades Park” along an odd path to an eventual career in television. He was born in Philadelphia on June 3, 1929. to Dr. Nathaniel Barris, a dentist, and the former Edith Cohen; his father died when he was young.
After graduating from Drexel University in his home city in 1953, he was accepted into a management training program at NBC in 1955. But, he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2003, the department he was placed in — daytime sales — was eliminated, and he found himself trying, unsuccessfully, to sell the devices then known as TelePrompTers.
During the payola scandals of the 1950s, he was hired to keep a young ABC star, Dick Clark, of “American Bandstand,” out of trouble. (“He sat around doing nothing all day but drawing on a pad of paper,” Mr. Clark told The Inquirer.) By 1959 he was ABC’s director of West Coast daytime programming.
But he wanted to make his own shows, and in 1965 he came up with “The Dating Game,” in which a bachelorette or bachelor would choose a date from among three unseen members of the opposite sex after asking them questions.
He followed that the next year with “The Newlywed Game,” another question-and-answer show that put just-married couples’ compatibility to the test. Both shows stayed on the air into the mid-1970s and spawned assorted sequels (“The All-New Dating Game” and “The New Newlywed Game”).
Mr. Barris’s next game shows were less successful, but just as it seemed he was losing his touch, he came up with the concept that would catapult him to a new level of fame: “The Gong Show,” which had its premiere on NBC in June 1976. The show featured a series of performers, most of them amateurs, and a panel of three celebrity judges. Mr. Barris himself was the brash, irritating host.
The performers, who were often terrible, would be allowed to go on until one of the judges couldn’t stand it anymore and sounded a gong, putting an end to the spectacle. Those who weren’t gonged were rated by the judges on a 1-to-10 scale. In keeping with the ridiculousness of the proceedings, the prize amount they vied for was ridiculous: $516.32 on the daytime version of the show, $712.05 on the prime-time edition.
The show, which ran on NBC until 1978 and then in syndication (with revivals in later years), became a cultural sensation. Critics complained about its crassness and cruelty, but Mr. Barris, like purveyors of burlesque and circus sideshows in earlier generations, knew there was a large audience for lowbrow. At one point the daytime version was attracting 78 percent of viewers 18 to 49.
“In my opinion, a good game show review is the kiss of death,” Mr. Barris said in a Salon interview in 2001. “If for some strange reason the critic liked it, the public won’t. A really bad review means the show will be on for years.”
The ghost of “The Gong Show” is evident in numerous reality-television shows of more recent vintage — the early rounds of any given season of “American Idol,” for instance.
Mr. Barris always bristled at the “King of Schlock” label that was hung on him as far back as “The Dating Game.” In a 2003 interview with Newsweek, he noted that shows much like the ones he created were by the 21st century being received differently.
“Today these shows are accepted,” he said. “These shows aren’t seen as lowering any bars.”
By the end of the 1970s, thanks to “The Gong Show,” Mr. Barris’s television production company was busy and profitable, but he was itchy to try something else. What he tried, disastrously, was “The Gong Show Movie,”which he directed and, with Robert Downey Sr., wrote. It was released in May 1980 and flopped.
Mr. Barris gradually withdrew from television, selling his holdings, spending most of his time in France and turning to writing. He had already written one book, “You and Me, Babe” (1974), a novel about a television producer whose marriage failed; it drew heavily on his own rocky marriage to Lyn Levy, a niece of the powerful CBS chief William S. Paley, in the 1950s. They were divorced in 1976.
That first book sold well, but it was the next one that would give Mr. Barris yet another burst of notoriety: “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (1984), a supposed autobiography in which he claimed that while traveling in his role as a television producer in the 1960s he was also an assassin for the C.I.A.
The book got only a smattering of attention, but it caught some eyes in Hollywood, and in 2003, after many delays, a film version came out, directed by George Clooney and starring Sam Rockwell as Mr. Barris. (Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay, embellishing Mr. Barris’s tale.)*
The film brought Mr. Barris, by now in his 70s, a fresh round of publicity and endless variations on the obvious question: Was it true? Mr. Barris generally played coy, delivering elliptical answers that neither confirmed nor denied. The C.I.A. was more direct: Various spokesmen said Mr. Barris had had nothing to do with the agency.
In later years Mr. Barris continued to write books, among them the comic novels “The Big Question” (2007), about an outlandish game show where the stakes are literally life or death, and “Who Killed Art Deco?” (2009), about the murder of a wealthy young man.
In 2010 he turned to a much more serious subject with “Della: A Memoir of My Daughter,” telling the story of his only child — from his marriage to Ms. Levy — who as a girl sometimes turned up on “The Gong Show.” She died of a drug overdose in 1998, at 36.
Mr. Barris’s second marriage, to Robin Altman, ended in divorce in 1999. He is survived by his wife, the former Mary Clagett.
Which of his several careers was his favorite? In 2007, during an appearance at the Book Passage bookstore in Corte Madera, Calif., he dealt with the question.
“When you go to that great game show in the sky,” he asked himself, “would you rather be known as an author or as a TV game show producer?”
“That’s the easiest question of all,” he responded. “I would love to be known as an author, but I don’t think it’s written that that’s the way it’s going to be. I think on my tombstone it’s just going to say, ‘Gonged at last,’ and I’m stuck with that.”