January 13, 2003 12:00 PM

Ask Chuck Barris about discrepancies in his autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and he has a Rolodex of flip responses. Writing that he was born in 1930 instead of 1929? “I made it a round number,” the former Gong Show host shrugs. Sharing details of an affair with a woman named Penny Pacino, who turned out to be a composite of former lovers? “I named her for Al Pacino,” he says. “Al and I used to hang out and play racquetball.” But question the book’s most eyebrow-raising revelation—that he was a CIA assassin while producing The Newly-wed Game in the 1960s and ’70s—and Barris, 73, turns serious. “It wasn’t a lark,” he insists. “It’s true. I don’t care if people don’t believe me.”

With the recent opening of the film version of Confessions, believers and doubters alike will have a chance to further evaluate the many lives of Chuck Barris. Equal parts success story and spy thriller, the movie, which marks George Clooney‘s directorial debut, follows Barris (played by Sam Rockwell) as he rises from NBC tour guide to creator—with 1965’s The Dating Game—of the reality television genre. Says his pal, veteran TV producer Dick Clark: “A lot of the stuff on the air these days has its roots in Chuck’s shows.”

Like a plotting Survivor player, Barris says he used his game shows as a cover for his CIA work. Although the agency has never commented on Barris’s claims—he told Connie Chung in the ’80s that he made it all up, then later said that was a lie—the movie shows him chaperoning Dating Game winners in Eastern Europe while offing bad guys. “We really didn’t talk about his CIA work,” says Rockwell, who spent months hanging out in Manhattan with Barris and his third wife, Mary, 43, to prepare for the role. “He told me he didn’t kill any contestants.”

Barris, however, did strain good taste, at least in the eyes of critics offended by the sexual innuendo of The Newlywed Game. (Sample question: “Where’s the strangest place you’ve ever made whoopee?”) He was also reviled for The Gong Show—which featured talentless acts that were “gonged” off the stage by a panel of judges. “The critics pounded him,” says Clark. The show was canceled, and Barris says he was forever after seen as “a dinosaur out of the loop.”

That was nothing compared to the lumps he took in his personal life. The older of two children raised in Philadelphia by Nathaniel, a dentist, and Edith, a homemaker, Barris graduated from Philadelphia’s Drexel University and after a stint in NBC’s management trainee program got his big break when ABC hired him to create game shows. With The Dating Game, he had his first hit.

Amid the success Barris’s marriage to Lyn Levy ended in 1976, and Della, their only child, then 13, was living with him. “Beverly Hills,” Barris says, “was not a great place to raise a kid who had problems and some bucks in her pocket.” Della spiraled into drug addiction, and after years of trying to get her into counseling, Barris (whose second marriage, to Robin Altman, had also failed) tried “the tough love thing,” he says. “I gave her $1 million in a trust fund and told her to go away and not come back until she was clean.” In 1998 they reconciled, but later that year Della died of an overdose. “He feels a lot of guilt,” Mary says. “He feels he should have done more for her.”

Barris had a near-death experience of his own. In 2000 cancer cost him part of one lung; six days after surgery he contracted an infection and spent a month in intensive care. “It was a real leveler,” he says. “You’re just hoping for your health.”

Hopes for a return to TV, however, are not on his wish list. “I’ve had my day,” says Barris, who sold Chuck Barris Productions for a reported $100 million in the early 1980s. Since then he has kept busy writing (a sequel to Confessions, published in 1982 and rereleased last year, is in the works) and making some public appearances.

This “simple, quiet” routine, as he calls it, is a far cry from the life he used to lead—or claims he used to lead—but Barris prefers it that way. “As far as I’m concerned,” he says, “it’s perfect.”

Galina Espinoza

Bob Meadows in New York City

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