Jerry Springer, the former Cincinnati news anchor and mayor who came to preside over the controversial and extremely profitable talk show bearing his name, has died. He was 79.
Springer died peacefully Thursday at his home in the Chicago suburbs after a brief illness. “Jerry’s ability to connect with people was at the heart of his success in everything he tried whether that was politics, broadcasting or just joking with people on the street who wanted a photo or a word,” said Jene Galvin, a lifelong friend and spokesman for the family, in a statement obtained by Variety. “He’s irreplaceable and his loss hurts immensely, but memories of his intellect, heart and humor will live on.”
“Jerry Springer Show” began its multi-decade run in 1991 and, in 1998 at the height of its popularity, beat “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in the ratings, drawing 12 million viewers.
Like Geraldo Rivera, Springer signed on for a show that he thought seemed like the logical next step in his journalism career — a show not unlike “Donahue” that would take a serious look at a variety of important issues. But as with “Geraldo,” the pressure to score big in the ratings pretty quickly meant Springer and his new producer, Richard Dominick made significant changes to make the show stand out and draw a bigger daytime audience as the content of daytime TV in general became much more provocative and coarse.
While the signature moment of “Geraldo” was a brawl between neo-Nazis and Jews that resulted in throwing chairs and a broken nose for Rivera, “Springer” — if not Springer himself — was more interested in sex than in politics. The “Springer” show’s most controversial episode involved a man “married” to a horse.
Gerald Norman “Jerry” Springer was born in Highgate, London, England, to Jewish refugees from Germany (the area is now part of Poland). Both of his grandmothers died in Nazi concentration camps.
In January 1949, when Springer was just shy of 5 years old, the family emigrated to the U.S., settling in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York. He and his sister, Evelyn, grew up in a small apartment. Springer earned a B.A. in political science from Tulane University in 1965 — becoming “a full-fledged member of the civil rights and antiwar generation,” according to a 1989 profile in People magazine — and a J.D. degree from Northwestern University in 1968.
Springer became a political campaign adviser to Robert F. Kennedy, according to a 1998 profile of Springer in Slate written by David Plotz. After Kennedy’s assassination, he joined the Cincinnati law firm of Frost & Jacobs (now Frost Brown Todd).
Springer spearheaded the effort to lower the voting age in Ohio, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of ratification of the 26th Amendment. He impressed local Democrats, and at 25 he ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1970, taking 45% of the vote in a traditionally Republican district. Three days after announcing his candidacy, Springer, an Army reservist at the time, was called to active duty and deployed to Fort Knox; he continued with his campaign after discharge.
Springer was elected to the Cincinnati City Council in 1971 but resigned three years later after admitting at a press conference to hiring a prostitute. Springer managed to win back his seat in 1975. In 1977, when he ran again, Springer received more votes than any other candidate for the council, which meant, under local law, that he was elected mayor. While mayor he initiated change in the local jails. When neo-Nazis applied to march, Springer was conflicted, having lost relatives in the camps. But he was a staunch advocate of the First Amendment, and allowed them to march.
In 1982, Springer sought the Democratic nomination for governor of Ohio but finished a distant third.
Springer considered runs for the U.S. Senate in 2000 and 2004, but opted against it.
Springer began his career in broadcasting while still an undergraduate at Tulane, on the university-operated, progressive format college radio station WTUL-FM New Orleans. While mayor of Cincinnati, he offered commentaries that appeared on album-oriented rock radio station WEBN-FM under the banner “The Springer Memorandum.” These commentaries proved popular, leading to a full-time job in broadcasting: Springer was hired as a political reporter and commentator on NBC affiliate WLWT, at the time the station with the lowest-rated news show in the Cincinnati market. Later, after he’d been named primary news anchor as well as managing editor, he sought a catchphrase in the tradition of great television newsmen. With the help of some fellow station employees, he devised his signature line: “Take care of yourself, and each other.” Within two years he was Cincinnati’s No. 1 news anchor, together with partner Norma Rashid. He was the most popular anchor in the city for five years, according to Plotz’s 1998 Slate article, drawing 10 local Emmy Awards for his nightly commentaries, which would eventually become his “Final Thought” on “Springer.”
Springer remained a commentator at WLWT until January 1993, 16 months after the debut of “The Jerry Springer Show.”
In 1997 — after “Springer” had had more than time enough to become what we think of today — NBC-owned station WMAQ-TV Chicago hired Springer to serve as a news commentator, in reaction to which longtime popular news anchors Ron Magers and Carol Marin resigned. In response to audience dissatisfaction with these resignations, Springer bowed out as commentator after just two appearances.
Springer appeared as himself in a number of movies and TV shows, and played the president of the United States in the 2004 Dolph Lundgren film “The Defender.”
He essentially portrayed himself in the 1998 film “Ringmaster,” which provided a behind-the-scenes look at potential guests who apply to a “Springer”-like show; Springer’s character was named Jerry Farrelly.
He hosted NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” for two seasons, replacing Regis Philbin, and the GSN network gameshow “Baggage” from 2010-13.
Springer appeared twice on Broadway, the first time as a replacement for the Narrator in “The Rocky Horror Show” for a few days in late 2001, the second time as a replacement as Billy Flynn in the musical revival “Chicago” for about two weeks in 2009.
“Jerry Springer: The Opera,” a musical written by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee and based on the TV show, had many outrageous scenes, profanity, a scene in which the Springer character hosts a talk show in hell where, in the words of the New York Times, he tries to “referee a quarrel among Satan, a diaper-clad Jesus (who confesses to being partly gay), a Mary who is a teenage unwed mother, Adam, Eve and God the Father, wearing a white Elvis suit, who belts out one of the show’s signature arias: ‘It ain’t easy being me. It so ain’t easy being me.’” The musical was a huge hit in London, running from April 2003 to February 2005 before a U.K. tour in 2006. When it aired on BBC in January 2005, however, “It generated so many complaints that some BBC executives asked for police protection,” the Times said.
The controversy in Britain, together with financial conflict among the producers, probably account for why the musical has not yet seen a Broadway mounting, though after productions in Chicago, Memphis, Minneapolis and Las Vegas, it was performed at Carnegie Hall in January 2008 in a concert version with Harvey Keitel in the title role, the only nonsinging part in the show.
Springer delivered the commencement address at his alma mater, the Northwestern University School of Law, in May 2008. Many students criticized the choice of speaker, but he drew a standing ovation from about half the audience, and reviews of the speech were generally positive, according to an article on law firm marketing agency website one-400.com. In his speech he declared: “I am not superior to the people on my show, and you are not superior to the people you will represent. That is not an insult. It is merely an understanding derived from a life spent on the front lines of human interaction.”
Springer penned an autobiography, “Ringmaster,” that was published in 1998.
He is survived by his wife, Micki Velton, to whom he had been married since 1973, and a daughter, Katie.
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