By Susan Schindehette Natasha Stoynoff Frank Swertlow
August 27, 2007 12:00 PM

While writing his memoir, Merv Griffin wrestled with an appropriate epitaph, first considering the hypochondriac’s, “I told you I was sick,” then pondering one more appropriate (for a talk show host): “I will not be right back after this message.” He settled on “Stay tuned”—perfect words for a whirling dervish of a showman and businessman who was always plotting his next move. As he once told LIFE magazine, “Retirement is the choice after death.”

When the end did come on Aug. 12 in Los Angeles after his 11-year bout with prostate cancer, Griffin, 82, had amassed a personal fortune estimated at more than $1 billion. Much of it was earned through game shows he created (Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, among others) and savvy real estate deals. A born entrepreneur, Mervyn Edward Griffin Jr. mowed lawns and sold Christmas wreaths and magazines door-to-door in San Mateo, Calif., when his Irish family lost their home in the Depression. But his real forte was entertainment. He played piano at 4, was earning a good salary as a big-band singer by 19, and in 1948 debuted at the famed Coconut Grove, where he crooned and schmoozed with the likes of Bing Crosby and Lana Turner.

He put his debonair charm to further use on television variety shows in the ’50s when guest-hosting stints on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show led, in 1962, to his own The Merv Griffin Show. “It was like finding, you know, heaven,” he told Larry King last year. During its run to 1986, his guests (some 25,000 in all) included a who’s who of anyone who mattered: four Presidents, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Burton, Jane Fonda, John Lennon, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor. “He brought you into his circle,” says Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek. “He was interested in what you were saying.” Nancy Reagan was a longtime friend; so was Orson Welles, who died a couple of hours after his 50th—and final—interview with Griffin in 1985. “What have I learned from talking to all these famous people?” he ruminated to Esquire last year. “That there’s a major story behind everyone.”

Griffin’s personal life remained largely under wraps. An 18-year marriage to former radio comedian Julann Wright, mother of his son Tony, now 48 and a producer, ended in 1976. His main companion after that was actress Eva Gabor, who, until her death in 1995, spent time with him at his various properties: a 57-acre Carmel Valley vineyard, an 18th-century manor house in Ireland once owned by director John Huston, and a 40-acre horse ranch in California’s La Quinta.

In 1986, when his talk show folded (“It’s tough to say goodbye,” he said on its 5,520th and last installment), he sold Merv Griffin Enterprises to Coca-Cola for $250 million and diverted his moneymaking skills to real estate (including the storied Beverly Hilton), gaming resorts on Paradise Island and in Atlantic City, and thoroughbred horses. Griffin was starting production of yet another new game show, Merv Griffin’s Crosswords, to premiere this fall, when the cancer recurred last month. “[My father] was like the Energizer bunny,” said Griffin’s son Tony. “This wasn’t his type of ending. He’s a guy who just gets up and has fun and entertains.”