Fred Griffith, who brought a neighborly style and restless curiosity to more hours of live and local television than anyone else in history, died Friday, July 19, at 7:14 a.m. at a nursing facility in Solon. He was 90.
“He died quietly and peacefully, with his three children at his side,” his daughter, Gwen Griffith said. “He was surrounded by family. The one thing I’d like to say is that he loved every single fan who ever said hello to him or stopped to talk to him. He posed for pictures and signed autographs and listened to their stories. He taught us how to be kind. That’s who he was."
Northeast Ohio viewers knew Griffith as the warm, gracious and genial host of “The Morning Exchange” for 27 years on WEWS Channel 5 and “Good Company” for 12 years on WKYC Channel 3. He retired in February 2012, wrapping up a 53-year Cleveland broadcasting career.
“He brought the same curiosity and joy to the job every single day,” his longtime friend and producer Terry Moir said.
Griffith was asked by a journalist in the 1980s to play Joe Average viewer and give his impression of the Fred Griffith on the “Morning Exchange” set. “I think I’d see a pretty nice guy – somebody who wasn’t stuck on himself,” he said. “I’d look at him and say, ‘He seems sincere. He relates well to his guests. He seems like a nice guy.”
Describing his on-air style, Griffith said, “I’m not aggressive. I never to hurt anybody’s feelings. I just sort of la-dee-da along.”
It was bit of self-analysis that reflected his modest manner but belied his energy, intensity and wide-ranging interests.
Well-read and passionate about writing, he co-wrote seven books — six of them about food, a passion since childhood, and the seventh about his adopted hometown of Cleveland.
His love of travel took him to every continent. But he spurned job offers that would have forced him to move, and he involved himself deeply in the community. He liked to remember a trip to the remote Galapagos Islands where a stranger called out “Hey, Fred!” after recognizing him from TV back home.
“He was a great talent and a great personality,” WEWS vice president and general manager Steve Weinstein said, “and you just could not have met a nicer or more engaging person.”
His most enduring association was that 27-year run as host of “The Morning Exchange,” during his 33 years at Channel 5. Ironically, it started as a temporary assignment — six months after the show’s January 1972 premiere and the departure of original host Alan Douglas — and despite the advice of a consultant who judged Griffith “too aloof and cold ever to be of significant use to your station.”
“They never really told me I could stay on the show,” he said. “I just started doing it.”
He quickly made it his own, first by getting rid of a “monstrous desk” he found “too much of an authority barrier.” Then, he said, “I got [weathercaster] Liz Richards to come and sit down at the couch to join in with the conversation and interviews. Finally, I went to Joel Rose, who was doing the news on the show, and asked him to come out at the start of each day.”
With frequent contributors Don Webster and Dorothy Fuldheim, they became what station chief Donald Perris called the “happy gang” that changed the face of morning television. Griffith felt its major contribution “was to assume that the viewers, mainly women at home, were intelligent and interested in ideas and learning. Prior to that, women’s programming had been mostly cooking shows, exercise shows and crafts.”
“MX,” as it was called, had its share of cooking segments, which Griffith refined with gusto, as well as scores of touring celebrities and what he called “a few unsavories [and] some crazies.” But it also created local celebrities of its own, and it broke new ground with Griffith’s interviews with a woman dying of cancer, and with early AIDS patients who — to Griffith’s anger — were barred from the studio.
Connie Dieken — one of a succession of co-hosts that included Jan Jones, Randi Hall and Lee Jordan — said his goal was “to make everyone around him feel comfortable and look good... to make everyone else shine. You’ll never meet a kinder man than Fred Griffith.”
The show passed NBC’s “Today” in local ratings in its first year, and remained No. 1 for more than a decade. At its peak in the 1970s, “MX” drew two-thirds of the morning audience, making Griffith one of the city’s most familiar faces and highest-paid broadcasters. It spawned imitators across country, became one of the longest-running programs of its kind, and outlasted both of the pioneering shows it replaced, “Romper Room” and the Paige Palmer exercise and advice show.
When ABC started “Good Morning America,” it used “The Morning Exchange” as a model and hired David Hartman to be a “Griffith-type” host. But “MX” had its final broadcast Sept. 10, 1999.
The unflappable Griffith spent a few months painting his house and writing, moved to Channel 3, and was back on the air in May 2000 with “15 Minutes with Fred,” a daily show that expanded into “Studio 3” in September 2003 and “Good Company” two years later.
Born Jan. 3, 1929, in Charleston, West Virginia, Frederick Jennings Griffith started working in his family’s restaurant at age 13 — washing dishes “when there were no able-bodied men to do it” as World War II broke out. He majored in philosophy at West Virginia University, served as an officer in the Air Force, then married and entered journalism as radio news director of WTIP in Charleston.
He considered becoming a print journalist, but got interested in broadcasting because an uncle was a disc jockey. He came to Cleveland in 1959 as a newscaster and Sunday opera host for WDOK-AM, worked briefly for WVIZ Channel 25 in the mid-’60s, and started at TV-5 as a part-timer writing copy for the 11 p.m. news.
Hired full-time by WEWS in 1966, he rose to news director and then public affairs director, delivering nightly commentaries as well as hosting “MX.” From 1978-82, he also hosted “The Afternoon Exchange,” an hourlong spinoff of the morning show that turned into “Live on Five.”
He broadcast nearly 15,000 hours of live TV, conducted more than 40,000 interviews, wrote and aired 2,200 news commentaries, and wrote and produced scores of specials and documentaries.
Off the air, as his career solidified, he sought other challenges. “I wanted,” he said in 1974, “to take a chance — learn to sleep in the snow, drive a car fast, climb a mountain, run a marathon. I started savoring that type of experience.”
He became a serious climber and distance runner, activities curtailed after he broke his leg in a running accident in 1977 and began two years of rehabilitation. By 1982, however, he could joke he was “bipolar,” as he and friend William F. Baker — the original “MX” producer, and later president of WNET-TV in New York — became the 38th and 39th people to visit both the north and south poles.
His life changed in other ways as well. In 1981, he and his wife, Susie, divorced after 29 years, and he married Linda Myers. Together, they wrote the cooking books “The Best of the Midwest” (Viking, 1990); “The New American Farm Cookbook” (Viking, 1993); “Onions Onions Onions” (Chapters, 1994), which won a James Beard Award; the bestselling “Cooking Under Cover” (Chapters, 1996); “Garlic Garlic Garlic” (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), and “Nuts” (St. Martin’s, 2003).
Griffith also collaborated with Barney Taxel on “Cleveland — Continuing the Renaissance” (Towery, 1997), and wrote columns for Currents magazine.
He was a president of the West Shore Unitarian Church and the Society for Professional Journalists. He served on the boards of the Appalachian Action Council, the Golden Age Centers of Cleveland, the Cleveland International Film Festival and the City Club of Cleveland, and was a member of the Bio-Medical Ethics Community Advisory Committee at Case Western Reserve University. He also worked with several local charities, including the Autism Society of Greater Cleveland.
The winner of numerous local Emmys, he received the Distinguished Service Award from the Society for Professional Journalists and the Award for Excellence from the Cleveland Association of Broadcasters. He is in the Cleveland Press Club Hall of Fame, and was inducted into the local television academy’s Silver Circle. In 2005, he was awarded the Cleveland Area Restaurant Association Lifetime Achievement Award.
Surviving are daughters Barbara Griffith of Cleveland and Gwen Griffith of Connecticut; son Wally Griffith, of New Jersey; stepsons Rob Myers and Dr. Andrew Myers, both of Cleveland; three sisters, Betty Banks and Linda Smith of West Virginia and Sally Maclaughlin of Tennessee and 10 grandchildren.
Private Family Services only.