Jerry Springer

Jerry Springer Headshot

Host • Politician • Lawyer • Producer

Birth Name: Gerald Norman Springer

Birth Date: February 13, 1944

Death Date: April 27, 2023

Birth Place: Highgate, London, England, UK

Jerry Springer revolutionized television. In the 1990s, "The Jerry Springer Show" showcased ordinary citizens with unusual stories on a daytime televised circus of which he dubbed himself "ringmaster." The product of Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany prior to World War II, Springer made his early career as a lawyer and politician, initially as a city councilman in Cincinnati, OH, before becoming mayor of the city. In the early 1980s, he switched career gears, becoming an Emmy-winning TV news anchor and eventual host of his own eponymous daytime talk show. By the mid-1990s, he refashioned the fairly sober, public affairs chat hour into an increasingly tabloid-inspired examination of arcane social "issues," notably involving antisocial behavior, prompting the show to be syndicated nationwide. The phenomenon prompted "Ringmaster" (1998), a film starring Springer essentially as himself. Now a cultural icon, he routinely lampooned himself and his on-show shtick in comedic cross-media appearances. In the 2000s, Springer hosted a progressive radio talk show and took hosting duties for other shows such as "America's Got Talent" (NBC, 2006- ). Though widely imitated, Springer's formula would remain the gold-standard of daytime tabloid talkers. Springer himself remained ever-self-effacing about his show's cultural imprint.

Gerald Norman Springer was born on Feb. 13, 1944, in London, England, U.K., curiously enough in the Highgate Tube (subway) station, then being used as a bomb shelter against German air raids. His parents, Margo and Richard Springer, had fled Germany just prior to the 1939 invasion of Poland - his grandparents and other relatives had perished at the hands of Adolf Hitler's "Final Solution" ¬- and immigrated five years later to New York. They arrived on the RMSQueen Mary, affording Jerry an early memory of being welcomed to his new homeland by the Statue of Liberty. The family settled in Queens, with Margo and Richard finding jobs in a bank and as a street-vendor of toys, respectively, while raising Jerry and his sister in a four-room apartment. His parents encouraged him to assimilate via all-American activities such as Boy Scouts and baseball, and insisted their children read newspapers and discuss current events at the dinner table. From a young age, Springer became fascinated with the Civil Rights movement and the institutional injustices it was challenging in the American South. Graduating Queens' Forest Hills High School in 1961, he went off to New Orleans to attend Tulane University, securing a degree in political science before heading to law school at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. He earned his Juris Doctor in 1968, just in time to sign on as an aide to the galvanizing presidential campaign of New York Senator Bobby Kennedy, whom he had met at a dinner party that spring. Devastated upon Kennedy's assassination on June 5, 1968, Springer joined the massive antiwar protest during the Democratic Party's infamous national convention in Chicago. He settled the next year in Cincinnati, where he hired on with the Frost & Jacobs law firm and, spurred by the youth movement that had so embraced Kennedy's candidacy, worked on a campaign to change the voting age in Ohio from 21 to 18. He would later testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in favor of ratifying the 26th Amendment, which made 18 the voting age throughout the U.S.

In 1970, he ran for Congress on the Democratic Party ticket and an antiwar platform, but lost to the incumbent in the infamously conservative city. A run for Cincinnati's city council in 1971 proved more successful, and he married Micki Velton, who worked for local corporate leviathan Procter & Gamble, two years later. Both his career and marriage would face a serious test in 1974, however, when police raided a northern Kentucky brothel disguised as a health club, the records of which showed Springer among its "members" in the form of a personal check as payment for services rendered. He and Velton remained married but would separate under terms he kept close to the vest. But Springer zigged where most politicians would zag, fessing up to his philandering candidly and emotionally in a televised press conference before resigning. The honesty played so well with Cincinnati residents that they sent him back to the council in 1975 and went further to elect him mayor in 1977. Springer served two terms, bolstering his public outreach with a regular commentary slot on local rock station WEBN called "The Springer Memorandum," which laid the ground for a remarkable career turn. In 1982, he decided to take his political career to the next level and ran for governor of Ohio, doing well in early polling, but his opponents dredged up the prostitution scandal, and, though Springer addressed the issue in a remarkably forthright campaign ad, his fortunes sank. In the wake, Cincinnati's local TV stations came calling, hoping to put the still-popular politician on the air, and Springer decided to hire on with the NBC affiliate WLWT. Springer's stint as anchorman and managing editor for the station's nightly news broadcast made it the highest rated in the market, highlighted each night by his personal commentaries, and earning him seven local Emmy awards. In 1990, WLWT attempted to extend its Springer franchise with an afternoon public affairs show. In 1991, Multimedia Entertainment bought the show for broadcast in its four television markets, and its first season featured tame, issues-oriented fare, with politicians as guests and heady topics such as homelessness, gun-control and violence in entertainment.

NBC purchased the show for its owned-and-operated stations the next year and Springer moved production to the network's NBC Tower in Chicago. But by 1994, the staid format had failed to find an audience, and Springer and producer Richard Dominick, fearing Multimedia would cancel the show, began spicing things up. Noticing rating spikes on shows with more lowbrow topics, they began peppering their schedule with guests sure to spur confrontations with themselves and studio audiences, overt racists, practitioners of various forms of incest and bestiality and, frequently, strippers. As the "trash" factor drew bigger audiences, Springer and Dominick kept upping the ante of behavioral degeneracy and on-camera conflict, to the point that the program morphed into an on-air freak show by 1996, with fights between guests and even audience members becoming part of the attraction. Springer attempted mildly to moderate the proceedings and always sum up each episode with his takeaway "Final Thought." Culling the ranks of the deranged and clueless - a man who cut off his penis to discourage a homosexual stalker; man whose girlfriend revealed herself on the show to be transsexual - "Springer" by 1997-98 had become a cult phenomenon, eclipsing the ratings of daytime talk queen Oprah Winfrey, and selling briskly in overseas markets. The show's unabashed exploitation, as well as its fanning of violence and Springer's on-set security's seeming willingness to let it go, drew a fusillades of condemnation - not just from TV critics, but also television watchdog groups, politicians and clergy. The show's new parent, Studios USA, attempted to reign in the show's violence, but ratings lagged and new management allowed Springer to revert back to old ways. Other daytime syndicated shows cropped up, with many aping the "Springer" format and existing shows such as those hosted by Ricki Lake and Jenny Jones reformatted their own shows to be more sensationalist and raunchy.

Springer became a cultural touchstone, popping up as himself in "Final Thought" mode on "Roseanne" (ABC, 1988-1997),"The Steve Harvey Show" (The WB, 1996-2002), "The X-Files" (Fox, 1993-2002), "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ) and "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" (ABC, 1996-2003), as well as in the Rodney Dangerfield feature "Meet Wally Sparks" (1997) and the apropos B-film "Killer Sex Queens from Cyberspace" (1998). He extended his own franchise, doing versions of his show for the U.K. media, releasing a country music album and, in 1998, producing and starring in "Ringmaster." The feature film offered a barely fictionalized behind-the-scenes rendering of his show, both from his perspective and those of his guests desperately seeking their proverbial 15 minutes. Springer played it much like he has in real-life, dazed and somewhat baffled by the frenzy of his own creation, and the film won some mildly positive reviews. He also published an autobiographical book of the same name. In 2000, Studios USA - later to be folded into the NBC Universal media conglomerate - gave Springer a $30 million contract extension, but the year would also come with some stark headlines. In July of that year, one of Springer's recent guests was found murdered in a Florida home she had been trying to legally wrest from her ex-husband and his new wife, all three of whom had taped a segment for "Springer" just months before. The husband was later convicted of the murder, and Springer faced still more scrutiny over his penchant for inciting the worst in people. In 2002, the sons of the murdered woman filed a lawsuit against Springer, the show, and Studios USA, claiming that they had created an environment that had spurred the violence, but they dropped the suit the following year. Also in 2002, TV Guide named "Springer" atop its list of "The Worst TV Shows Ever." Curiously, that year, comedian and playwright Stewart Lee and composer Richard Thomas premiered their stage production "Jerry Springer: The Opera" - an intensively profanity-laden musical amalgam of Springer's shows with a sharp critique of its pious critics - at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, with Springer in attendance.

The Springer opera eventually went up in London's Royal National Theatre and in the West End for 609 performances from 2003 through 2005. A winner of four Olivier Awards, it eventually toured the U.K. and was broadcast on BBC2, to ardent protests of Christian groups. It was also staged in ensuing years in regional U.S. theaters, as Springer continued his regular schedule of cross-media appearances; most notably playing the President of the U.S. in the Dolph Lundgren B-actioner "The Defender" (2004). In 2005, he returned to politics of a kind with "Springer on the Radio," a syndicated radio show that showcased his thoughtful, lefty side and was carried nationwide for two years via the nascent but ill-fated progressive talk network, Air America. By the end of the show's two-year run, he had begun mulling a run for U.S. senator in Ohio, but decided against it and re-upped his contract on "The Jerry Springer Show" in January 2006. That year, he became a fan favorite on the ABC reality competition show, "Dancing with the Stars" (ABC, 2005- ), with the ever self-deprecating Springer - by far the oldest contestant up until then - intent upon learning to dance so he could do so with his daughter at her upcoming wedding. The next year, NBC Universal flipped him to the other side of the reality-competition fence, giving him hosting duties for two seasons on NBC's televised talent show, "America's Got Talent." In 2008, the BBC featured him in a heartfelt episode of its geneology-based documentary series, "Who Do You Think You Are" (BBC1, 2004- ) in which he tracked down the details of his grandmothers' last days and demise during the Holocaust. Also in the U.K., Springer himself made it to the West End in 2009, having a rare turn at singing and acting in the Cambridge Theatre's production of the musical "Chicago" in the Billy Flynn role famously played by Richard Gere in the movie adaptation. In 2010, Springer began hosting "Baggage," an original game-show for the Game Show Network in which contestants reveal their foibles and psychological issues while still attempting to win over a prospective date. Jerry Springer died on April 27, 2023 in Chicago, IL at the age of 79.

Credits

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