WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Mike Douglas, who drew on his affable personality and singing talent during 21 years as host of a syndicated television talk show, died Friday on his 81st birthday, his wife said. He died at 5:30 a.m. at a Palm Beach Gardens hospital, Genevieve Douglas said. She wasn't sure of the cause yet, but said he was admitted Thursday.
She said he became dehydrated on the golf course a few weeks ago and had been treated on and off for that since. He lived in North Palm Beach.
"He was coming along fine, we thought. It was really a shock," she said. "We never anticipated this to happen."
The afternoon talk show, which aired from 1961 to 1982, featured Douglas' ballad and big-band singing style, other musicians, comedians, political personalities and sports figures. His interviews included seven men who were then, had been or would become president.
"People still believe 'The Mike Douglas Show' was a talk show, and I never correct them, but I don't think so," Douglas said in his 1999 memoir, "I'll be right back - memories of TV's greatest talk show."
"It was really a music show, with a whole lot of talk and laughter in between numbers."
Douglas did about 6,000 shows, most an hour and a half long, and estimated that at its peak the show was seen in about 230 cities.
He was among the "early settlers" in daytime talk shows, said Robert Thompson, a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
"Mike Douglas was an old-fashioned traditionalist, holding down the fort while the culture was changing," Thompson said. "He was always the very friendly talk show host, nice to everybody. He would lean toward his guest as if he really cared. He owned that territory."
Hosts Phil Donahue, Dinah Shore and Merv Griffin also found success about the same time. Douglas said in his book that people often confused him with Griffin, another singer of Irish heritage.
Tim Brooks, television historian and executive vice president of research for Lifetime Television Network, said Douglas was "an outgrowth on the 1950s mentality of politeness, or niceness.
"Even when America was getting kind of angry in the 1960s and 1970s, his show was sort of an oasis of politeness," Brooks said. "It got you away from some of the turmoil in life."
Actress Rosie O'Donnell, who eventually had her own talk show, said in an introduction to Douglas' book that she was influenced by his shows. She described Douglas has having "a twinkle in his eye and a kindness to his being."
Douglas was genial only most of the time. He confided in his memoir that his composure was sorely tested one week in 1972 when former Beatle John Lennon and wife, Yoko Ono, were guest hosts. One of the guest celebrities they selected was well-known anti-war activist Jerry Rubin.
"He just got on my nerves. It sounded like this guy hated the president, the Congress, everyone in business, the military, all police and just about everything America stands for," Douglas said. He recalled becoming confrontational with Rubin.
But Lennon "picked up the mantle of Kind and Gentle Host, and he did it quite well, reinterpreting Jerry's comments to take some of the sting out and adding a little humor to keep things cool," Douglas said.
Douglas fondly recalled when Tiger Woods, as a preschooler who already was drawing attention because of his golfing talent, appeared on the same show as Bob Hope, an avid golfer. "I don't know what kind of drugs they've got this kid on, but I want some," Hope quipped.
Born Michael Delaney Dowd in Chicago on Aug, 11, 1925, Douglas began his career as a teenage singer and entertainer in supper clubs and on radio programs.
He was the staff singer at radio station WKY in Oklahoma City before joining the Navy during World War II and serving on a munitions ship.
Returning home, he became a featured performer on the radio and eventual television program, "Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge." Kyser gave him his stage name.
Douglas had two 1950s hit singles on the Billboard charts: "Old Lamplighter" and "Ole Buttermilk Sky." He made the popular song charts one more time in the early 1960s with his recording "The Men In My Little Girl's Life."
As the era of rock 'n' roll began to emerge in the late 1950s, his style became less marketable, so he started looking for a way to energize his career.
He briefly hosted "Hi, Ladies!", a daytime television program on WGN in Chicago. Then in 1961, Woody Fraser, a Westinghouse Group W program director who had known Douglas in Chicago, recruited him to a Group W station in Cleveland (then KYW) to host a talk and entertainment program.
The show syndicated starting in 1963 but had a limited budget, and Cleveland was not a frequent destination for well-known potential guests. The show moved to Philadelphia in 1965 and was based there for 13 years.
"The proximity to New York just made it for us," Douglas said in a 2004 interview. "We had limos going from New York to Philadelphia. That made it easier to get some of the guests who were in New York, and they happily came."
The show moved to Los Angeles in 1978.
Three years later, Group W replaced Douglas with a younger popular singer, John Davidson. "The Mike Douglas Show" continued in syndication under Douglas' control until he retired in 1982 to North Palm Beach. Douglas appeared as a guest on several talk shows but spent much of his leisure time on the golf course.
He was diagnosed with prostate cancer on 1990, but after surgery he was cancer free.